Emma Kennedy and The Case of The Unpaid Writers

This morning, I awoke to an email from an actress/broadcaster/author/journalist/twitter celebrity (this is all one person, by the way, it wasn’t a petition, these are all the strings to a single bow) which read:

If you contact me one more time I’m reporting you to your college.
Don’t think for one single second I won’t do that.
You are harassing me.

Sent from my iPhone

How did this happen? How did I go from being a mild-mannered chap minding his own business who people might describe as ‘quite nice’ to being a harasser of one actress/broadcaster/author/journalist/twitter celebrity? What follows is the story of my fall. A cautionary tale to all of those who think they’re just being normal but are, in fact, harassing.

In the interests of full disclosure, before I begin my tale of woe, I feel I must level with you, dear reader, and admit to three prior incidents which could easily be construed as celebrity harassment. They have no direct bearing on this case but lest they be resurrected out-of-context to form some kind of basis to firm up this accusation, I’d like for you to know the truth about them and to recognise that I was forthcoming in detailing them.

Incident 1. 1992. Oxford. Complainant: Timmy Mallett. Some friends and I saw Timmy Mallett in a queue at some event in a park. We laughed and mocked him from a point further back in the queue and then I shouted “Oi Timmy, Give us a WACAWAVE!” He turned around and fixed me with a haunted look of anxious disappointment which robbed my epithet of both humour and dignity.

Incident 2. 2011. The Internet. Complainant: Richard Herring. Richard Herring asked for recommendations for summer reading. I immediately replied “Don’t bother reading your own book. It’s quite disappointing” I regretted sending it quite quickly as it was more snide than jocular but it was, in my defence, rooted in a genuine disappointment at having paid £11.99 to read a man swing between dull self-indulgent regret at a life wasted and smug references to casual sexual encounters. Before I could delete the tweet, he had responded by comparing me to a woman’s genitals and blocked me – which is fair enough, really.

Incident 3. 1999. Marks & Spencer Food Hall, Oxford St, London. Complainant: Christopher Biggins. Whilst trying to navigate my way around the narrow labyrinthine overpopulated food basement, I found my path obstructed on three separate occasions by the same apparently owner-less trolley left lazily in the middle of the aisle at an angle. Three times I moved it to the side to clear the way. On the fourth occasion, grumpy and un-lunched, I shoved the trolley with all my might and watched it careen into a chiller unit at the end of the aisle. Proud of my work, I turned to find myself face-to-face with an outraged Christopher Biggins. “Why did you do THAT?” demanded the owl-faced off-hours panto dame who, in my memory, was clutching a bag of frozen peas.  I had no response. “You’re a very RUDE man!” he proclaimed before marching away towards his wronged trolley. “Fuck Off” I replied in a barely audible mumble as he left, not out of genuine malice but because I knew this was the chance to secure an anecdote entitled ‘The Time I Told Christopher Biggins To Fuck Off’

To these three people, I offer a belated apology, but I doubt they care. None of them accused me of harassment or threatened to report me to my college. I don’t actually have a college to be reported to, although I’m not sure that would have been a factor that concerned any of them.


The self-proclaimed harrasee is a person called Emma Kennedy. I followed her on Twitter because she seemed to be having a funny discussion with the incredibly excellent Caitlin Moran and because I remembered her as a peripheral character from the Lee & Herring stuff which I always loved (despite having been mean to Herring that one time). At some point last year, she and I exchanged a couple of tweets about something. I have a feeling it was the Murdoch thing. I can’t remember the nature of the exchange or the subject but it left an apparent precedent that she was happy to engage with people on Twitter. If only I’d known then what I know now (tone of mock drama, there)

I should say, at this point, if you can’t be bothered to read a transcript of a Twitter argument, I don’t blame you. Tiresome and tedious, this whole matter. There’s a good chance I’ve peaked with the Biggins anecdote on this blog and, really, I’m only writing this one to publicly state my case having been accused of harassment. That said, what Emma and I disagreed on is an interesting issue (rendered pointless when reduced to statements of 140 characters) and – after the transcript – I’ll conclude this blog by talking intelligently about it and, possibly, making a corker of a joke at Emma’s expense.

So, here’s the conversation we had. You should be aware that it was happening ‘live’ so sometimes they go a bit out of order as we address points the other had raised several tweets previous, but you’ll get the idea….

So, that’s that.

That was our dialogue. When it was finished, I was a bit pissed off not just because I felt we’d both got needlessly aggressive but because I felt she maybe hadn’t actually understood what I was saying – it was a thick and fast dialogue (resisting the temptation here to add ‘she was thick, I was fast’, that would be immature) so I made what I now see to be a mistake by sending her an email. In the meantime, one of my students had sent her a single tweet, which she responded to in volume (as you can see, he didn’t engage with her at all beyond his single tweet):

I sent this email to try to clarify my position and straighten out any bad feelings:

There are a couple of things I regret about this email retrospectively. The first is what I wrote about The Huffington Post, I’ll elaborate on this in a bit. The second is that I said ‘I am indeed a shitty teacher, teaching at shitty establishments’ I phrased it that way to highlight her definition of shitty as wrong but, on second reading, it might have come across as just agreeing with her. I’m not a shitty teacher and the places I teach are far from shitty. It’s just that neither I nor they are world-renowned, which is usually a lazy person’s basis for assessing quality.

The exchange continued:


which prompted:

to which I replied:

which ended finally with the aforementioned:

There’s a certain logic that says if someone feels harassed, then they are, I think it’s pretty clear that that was never my intention but, out of respect, I’ve not responded privately.

There are two points to be made following this discussion.

My first is my position on writers not getting paid. I think there is a notable division between unpaid work and exploitation. If a writer were being exploited, it would mean that whoever they were writing for was publishing their work without their knowledge or permission, uncredited and/or retaining the copyright on it. That would be exploitative. The publisher would be profiting from the actual work and the writer would get nothing in return.

Although it’s a disingenuous practice for profitable companies to publish a writer’s work unpaid, I don’t think it’s exploitative. Firstly, they have the writer’s express permission to use it. Secondly they are providing a platform for a writer’s talents to be spotted. Thirdly they are allowing these writers to cut their teeth and get valuable industry experience.  I don’t know Emma’s story and what her route to ‘success’ has been but, especially since the internet went huge, it’s almost impossible for a new writer’s voice to be heard. The internet is a quagmire of amateur journalism. Her assertion that ‘Talented writers don’t get ignored’ and ‘luck has nothing to do with it’ are painfully naive and her hostility to the sentiment that this industry rewards tenacity over talent smacks of either insecurity or ignorance.

I know a bunch of talented writers who go ignored – of course they go ignored – the competition is ridiculous. As I mentioned (and will continue to do so forevermore on this blog) I’ve spent the last 5 years making a film about precisely that and when you get members of Radiohead confirming that their career was thanks in no small part to luck and timing and commercial trends… well, I respect their views over hers.

The cream doesn’t always rise.

That may sound pessimistic, it may sound bitter, but it’s true.

I’ve always taught on the principle of honesty. I think a lot of adult education is actually motivational speaking – people like Robert McKee, Dov Siemens, these 2-day expensive workshops which seem to promise to prepare you for the industry. They’ll list glamorous ex-students in their literature but these guys tour the world to packed houses. Out of how ever many thousand people who take their courses, how many go on to success? My ethos is that if you want to learn to write, then you’re learning a craft and you’re learning how to express yourself. That’s almost incongruous to learning to make money from the skill. I teach people how to develop into good writers. That’s all I promise because that’s all I *CAN* promise. I grew up reading all of those books entitled ‘how to write screenplays that SELL’ – nobody can teach that.

All writing is competitive. If, unlike Emma, you don’t have an agent, a body of published work and a slew of rich, famous and influential friends, then you’re on your own in a sea of other amateurs. You have to do anything you can to get your name known. And that is currency you’re dealing in – not money. The money will come once you’re somewhat established. If anyone offers you a raft, a platform for your work you take it on the single proviso that your name will be on it. When you’re starting out, a by-line, a credit, anything you can put on your cv or will widen your audience is of at least equal value to a couple of quid. Work hard and be as tenacious as your personality will allow.

The stupidest thing to do would be to demand money if you’re an unproven, unknown talent. Ask if it’s possible by all means. But if you refuse to let people see your work for free at this point in your career… people won’t see your work because there is an endless queue of people behind you who will happily seize the chance to work for free to begin with.

This is true also in the world of music and comedy, where you expect to do unpaid bottom-of-the-bill gigs to get experience and exposure. it’s true in design – all of the designers I’ve ever hired I found through admiring the work they’d done for free on gig posters and websites. It’s true for writing too – screenwriters and novelist friends of mine have all responded to this issue of the past few days by telling me how their first deals were spec deals – they had to do the work before the company decided whether it was worth publishing or commissioning and these deals are usually now actually back-end profit-splits. This is what you have to do to get started. And it’s worth doing.

I applaud Emma’s idealism. The notion that if all writers refused to work unpaid it would suddenly become a fair world for writers (FACT) but we’ll never know because that’ll never ever ever ever ever ever happen. It’s a competitive marketplace and you have to be in it to win it. Or you have to be very very very very lucky.

The other point I guess I want to make is a brief one about this horrible new concept of ‘Twitter celebrity’. Some people seem to think that just because people choose to follow them they are actually fans who agree to exist in some kind of state of devotion, deferral and awe. They aren’t. They are all human beings, many of equal or superior intelligence and integrity who simply don’t have the same public profile or platforms.

Oh yeah, I promised to end on a joke…

How many Emma Kennedys does it take to change a lightbulb?

None, she is incapable of affecting change and is naive to the landscape of artificial lighting.

Published in: on January 13, 2012 at 2:40 pm  Comments (35)  

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  1. WOW! She was really hostile!

    I’m a photographer and writer (mainly in the music industry) and it’s been the same in both fields, in that much of the work I did at first was for free. I will also continue to do work for free at times when there is no paid work because being consistently and currently published really does count for a lot when you’re pitching for the paid jobs.

    I have also always said that I was very lucky in how I started getting work in the photography field (and later in writing too). I was in the right place at the right time and knew the right people who took a chance on me when I was unproven. I was in that place and time because I put myself out there, then having got the chances I developed my own opportunities from there. However, I wouldn’t have been given the chances had I not been able to show that I had some measure of talent to be taken a chance on, so yes that is also a valid point – talent counts.

    If you tell a new writer that they must work for free because they don’t deserve to be paid at that stage of their career, then yes you are telling them they are worthless. If you tell them not to be surprised if they find themselves working for free to start with, and explain the value of exposure, proven consistency, showing a dedication tothe work as an alternative to cash remuneration, then you are simply preparing them for the harsh realities of the industry, and offering them an alternative to feeling undervalued. The first person who needs to value your work is yourself and value is not always counted in pounds and pence.

    I hope I NEVER end up with an attitude such as Emma displayed there; in reality no one really rises as high or as mighty as that. I actually think you were very restrained and actually trying to engage in a discussion of the subject very well (especially with the twitter character limit) rather than just throwing out barbed and loaded comments, followed by insults and simply repeating the initial statement.

    That’s my impression of it all anyway.

  2. The fact she got a book deal from her blog (which she wrote for free) proves your point and renders her point redundant. She doesn’t seem to be able to see that.

  3. Not wishing to appear rude in any way, but I think, on reading the whole blog entry that you have got the wrong end of the stick. You also started off by telling Emma that she had given “Awful advice”, which is not really the most positive of starts. I think she made it pretty clear that she was referring to not working for TV/Film production companies for nothing, rather than simply writing for nothing. She was talking within the context of the Danny Baker situation surely?

    • Well, Danny Baker isn’t a young writer.
      I don’t see how Danny Baker being asked to work for free relates to young struggling writers working for free. Danny Baker can say ‘no’ confident that a paying offer is just around the corner. to tell a young writer to reject work on the basis it is unpaid is, I do believe, awful advice.

      • Again, I think if you go back over her timeline though, she was being fairly specific in that she was talking about TV/Film production companies. As she quite rightly points out, they will have a budget, and they should be made to pay writers. It is not simply rejecting all work on the basis that it is unpaid, and I do not believe she said that. In fact she herself mentioned her blog, and how she got work through it. It is a perfectly reasonable opinion, that you dismissed as awful, and as a writer, and teacher of writing, surely you understand that set a tone, from which the twitter conversation seemed destined to plummet!

      • As you’ll see from the email I sent her – I wanted to rectify the tone. She is currently publicly accusing me of sexual harassment and sending ‘vile’ emails (all the emails I’ve sent her are in that blog). I’ve always maintained that I essentially agree with her philosophy but disagree with her advising young writers to refuse unpaid work.

  4. I do see that you tried to rectify it but I still contend that she did not advise young writers to refuse unpaid work, but to advise them to refuse unpaid work from TV/Film production companies who have a budget. I thin also you are misrepresenting what she is currently saying on Twitter about you….

    • If you look again, 15th comment down on the original Twitter conversation she did say ‘papers and Tv Companies’, though i have no doubt this whole situation has become far too serious for this comment to have any real relevance.
      I’m an aspiring writer; might take some free work, might be jammy enough not to have to, however, the last thing i’m gonna concern myself with is becoming some kind of cash cow, money is for rich people and words are for everyone, lets not bicker and quarell about how we each decide to deal with and/or express this.
      Look on the bright side, from what i’ve read, you’re all very passionate and expressive writers/social philosophers, hope i have the chance to debate equal (if not more important) issues when i’ve finally risen from my educational ashes.

  5. If you had *all* writers refusing to work for free, then you’d inevitably get the one who would be willing to work for free, it’s a case of undercutting your rivals.
    Her attitude towards you was pretty ridiculous, as well as the “vile” email line.

  6. “effecting change”

    • Uh.. no.

  7. I never got round to applying narrative to this from the tail-end of last year, but this is how I – admittedly and openly ignorantly of the legality, but without malice – went from “engaging in a conversation with once journalist that I have always found fairly engaging” to “misogynist who wants to strangle all women” in around an hour.


    When someone is matching or exceeding you, missive for missive, they don’t really get to cry persecution, when really they’re just pissed that you aren’t letting them scoop the last word with unrestrained slander. Is my opinion.

    Oh, and by the way, I think threatening to lose your job for you is one of those interesting things that, if the internet had any real memory, would really stick to a celeb like shit, the next time they knee-jerked about some social-justice scandal.

    • Haha that is hilarious. She was a solicitor for two years according to her extensive bio. I love the way she tries to back losing arguments up with a reference to Oxford or her multiple degrees.

      • What I would normally say to someone behaving like that in person, but didn’t say in that situation because I genuinely wasn’t looking for a fight, or to be offensive, was that just because you held a job, doesn’t mean you were particularly good, or even competent at it.

        I’d be surprised if Ms Kennedy’s own writing or commentary – that by that point I’d already tuned out except when she was in conversation with someone else – respects the idea that people should be afforded any expertise for the position they hold. That’d require her never whinging about a politician, a judge, a bus driver, or, well, a writing teacher, in a way that suggests they aren’t experts in their field, I guess!

  8. Emma Kennedy *unfollowed*. Nasty lady.

  9. what do you think of the brennan jb7? I’m thinking of getting one for her indoors

  10. The problem is that you and Emma aren’t actually having the same conversation here. You’re both so intent on making your own points heard that you’re not listening to the other person and realising that you’re currently on different pages. If you were to both of you step back and double check the contents page, I think you’d both agree with each other’s basic points once you established a conversation about them as opposed to a declaration of opinions that aren’t actually in opposition because they’re not actually about the same thing.

    Although that said, there is no such excuse for such hostility and “I’M NOT HAVING THIS CONVERSATION ANY MORE (except I totally am)”.

  11. You think THAT’S bad? Try telling her the ending to Battlestar Galactica. I may as well have shit in her hair.

  12. Appalling treatment Jon, you have my sympathy,


  13. You are right. She is wrong.

    I don’t know you, or really know who she is. So I have no stake in this argument.

    But you are still correct and she is still mistaken.

  14. I too have had the joy of being blocked by Ms Kennedy. On Christmas day she posted some contentious remarks which I responded to. This was followed by a bit of twitter tennis before, yes you’re ahead of me now, I was accused of starting a “fight” and I was blocked. I have since discovered that I am far from being alone in experiencing this behaviour from La Kennedy. Your use of the word snippy is very apposite. If you don’t agree with her you are against her. In all the cases I am aware of it was not the blocked party who threw the first insult.

    My personal experience on twitter is that I have interaction with some top notch writers and journalists (Ian Rankin, Mary Ann Sieghart would be two examples. And some very well know broadcasters. All dealings with them have been polite and civilised both ways. It’s only the minor ones who get snippy. By the way have read several of ms K’s guardian travel articles in the last few weeks and you’re a much better writer than she is!

  15. She does get very bitter very quickly, but there are a number of points where you clearly seem to be trying to ease the conversation back to less hostile territory which she ignores. So I wouldn’t worry too much about it. However the joke at the end of the blog is not that funny and a bit much.

    Fundamentally I think people in music are best placed to see how some VERY talented people just don’t make it. Writers don’t all pile into the same empty writers agents and read each others stuff the way musicians do. they probably do hear that most of what agents read is dross and that they yearn for real talent. But bands get to see all of those groups come through that are so good but you know there just isn’t the market for them right now.

    Half the time the groups are playing stuff you wouldn’t buy yourself but you are pulled along by how good they are. There are many bands like that in every town in the country and they flicker in and out.

    And then, when you see someone playing a big stage who you’d seen in front of the other bands and their girlfriends the feeling is amazing.

    Musicians know that story probably better than any other creative group. And telling her that luck and contacts were part of what made her a success is probably very hurtful for someone without that experience. From her perspective it may appear bitter and spiteful no matter what language it is couched in.

    Interestingly comedy, which (used to be) a much smaller circuit, might become more like music. But surely when there were so few people involved and so few venues in the early 90s the cream probably did rise. I’m going too far now but I’m finding the comparison interesting. A band NEEDs recognition in a way a comic might not, most audiences will enjoy a band more as they listen to them, whereas a good comic with a name on a small circuit can be booked anywhere for a well attended comedy night. I’ll leave it at that.

    Fundamentally I would say she got too defensive too quickly and you’ve nothing to apologise for. But I would try to keep the higher moral ground, her perspective on this is different to yours and so things that you thought were non-aggressive may have seemed more hurtful to her.

  16. Even before i read this exchange I had decided that Twitter was generally getting on my nerves. It’s so un-illuminating. Is their any argument more unsatisfying than a twitter spat? She got mad really quickly though!

    Be nice if everyone got paid, but.. really. When screenwriters work for nothing are they not often collaborating with a bunch of other people who also aren’t being paid? Low budget features, shorts and so-on. That works for me. Millions of great artists have started out working for free. What an odd thing for her to take a stand about. If everyone just hugged each-other, we’d all be happy.

  17. It’s pretty clear to me that your tone is conciliatory and that you’re attempting to argue your point in a civilised manner while she is just implacably hostile throughout.

    I used to write a blog and at the time I refused a couple of fully remunerated writing opportunities, one of them for a national newspaper. Did I mess up?

  18. She has form for threating people with their jobs, bullying and being generally mental.

    Not all women, not even all lesbians are like her – I promise.

  19. What a grown up and helpful addition to the debate

    • More grown up than sockpuppetry.

      • So if I agree with her, I am a sockpuppet? Don’t think you quite get this do you?

  20. Ms Kennedy was discovered while writing a blog?
    I wonder which of her numerous media friends it was who discovered her little blog and dropped a hint to a mate in some publishing house who fondly remembered Emma from Oxbridge. This kind of thing happens all the time after all. Doesn’t it?
    She should read more autobiographies of successful writers, musicians, actors etc and see the amount of times they mention luck and being in the right place at the right time or knowing someone influential as playing a major part in their careers.
    But no, Ms Kennedy’s success was all down to her brilliance and talent of course and nothing at all to do with old friends like Jennifer Saunders & Richard Curtis, oh and not forgetting Chris Langham…

    • Desperately want to make a joke that suggests that Langham’s reputation might be affected negatively by connection to Kennedy, but can’t make it work.


      I think the guy is such a genuine and impressive talent that pretty much just thinking about him makes me sad.

  21. What a thoroughly vile woman she is. It would have been enough to agree to disagree but clearly she is a self appointed master of language. Sadly that obvious talent doesn’t extend to her manners.

    Have never heard of her before and being a master of the internet clearly she is crap and I am talented…[sic]

  22. Apparently she replied to you “ten minutes after recieving yours”. What did it say?

    • Sorry – ten minutes after receiving my what?

  23. She really is a vile woman, I unfollowed her after watching many similar situations she had with others. She is arrogant, rude and deluded, watch the Smoking Room and you can have a fictional reason to dislike her too, her character is truly vile, possibly the writer saw something in her that suited the role!

  24. emma is a twitter bully who gets off on having a go at anyone who disagrees with her. it is amazing that she has a go at people rather than ignore or block. it seems that she imagines that she should be the only public peson that doesn’t receive less tha enthusiatic comments. she has a high opinion of herself and talent. she doesn’t allow comments on her guardian column either.

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