Sports presenter Sonja McLaughlan has worked at every Olympic Games since 1996 and reported from the touchline of the Six Nations for almost two decades. Yet she is now having to apply for benefits, as her work calendar was wiped clean almost overnight in March following blanket bans on sporting events.
She is one of an estimated two million freelancers who do not qualify for the Government’s grant scheme to help self-employed people through coronavirus.
Hundreds of thousands have lost work but are not eligible for support, usually because they have not worked for themselves for long enough or because they set up their business as a limited company and pay themselves via dividends, as was the case with Ms McLaughlan.
“It was something the BBC asked me to do when I joined,” said Ms McLaughlan, who works alongside presenters including John Inverdale and Gabby Logan. “The majority of my colleagues did the same and it has meant we can’t get any help.”
She also undertakes freelance work on a pay-as-you-earn (PAYE) basis for a number of television stations. Many workers on these kinds of short-term contracts are missing out on support. They are considered to be employees so are not eligible for a self-employed grant but generally cannot be furloughed either as they have not been working at the company for long enough to qualify.
‘It’s ridiculous. In my 50s I am having to rely on my family’
Ms McLaughlan said cancellations of events such as the Tokyo Olympics and Wimbledon, which she was due to report on, had lost her tens of thousands of pounds and that she had been forced to borrow money from her mother to pay her bills.
“It’s ridiculous. I pay corporation tax, dividend tax, National Insurance and PAYE income tax. Yet I’m entitled to nothing and, in my 50s, am having to rely on my family,” she said.
She applied for Universal Credit more than a month ago and is still waiting to hear if she is eligible. “If my mother hadn’t stepped in, my money would have run out in September and I wouldn’t be able to pay my mortgage.”
Ms McLaughlan added that there was a perception that broadcast freelancers were all high earners who did not need support.
“We’re not all Gary Lineker. Almost every single person it takes to put a Six Nations match on your screen will be paid via a limited company or on a short-term contract – the makeup artists, the floor managers, the sound supervisors. Many only make a very small turnover and are surviving on no income.”
She added that workers across the whole broadcast industry, including arts, music and drama, had been affected. “These people contribute an enormous amount to the cultural and economic health of this country,” she said.
The Government has put in place loans to help small businesses, but Ms McLaughlan said she would rather not take on the debt.