Politicians are a strange breed. One minute they are nodding and agreeing with you, and the next they say something which goes so against what you just said you wonder if they were listening at all.
Ivan Lewis, shadow culture secretary, in his Labour Conference speech today suggested that the news industry ought to consider registering journalists such that they could be ‘struck off’ if they committed a serious offence.
Huh? ‘Struck off’? Journalists are not like doctors and lawyers. It is neither practical nor desirable to register or ‘strike off’ journalists. It is not practical because people can and will publish, whether you like it or not. It is not desirable because as soon as you start registering writers in a democracy then you raise the inevitable spectre of licensing and thorny questions about the very real danger of letting the state get involved in what people can and cannot publish.
To give Lewis more credit than some commenters have, he appears to have been talking about professional registration, not state registration. Something more akin to the ‘Journalism Society’ outlined by John Lloyd in the Financial Times. But many of the problems remain, particularly in a digital world. If the Society is not formed on the basis of statutory regulation, for example, then it is likely that a number of news organisations and journalists will not join. If it is based on statutory regulation then it is likely to be seen as a form of licensing and rejected for this reason. If it is international – as it probably has to be in a digital world – it is not clear how sanctions would be enforceable on a national basis.
It’s a shame Lewis made this unhelpful proposal because otherwise he was rather eloquent on the subject of press reform, both in his speech and at the Hacked Off panel debate he spoke at on Monday night.
The Hacked Off debate was the second of three we – Hacked Off – have organised at the Party Conferences (with support from Index on Censorship, English PEN and the Media Standards Trust).
The debates have three aims:
1. To find out if the political commitments to press reform made in July were a flash-in-the-pan or a genuine commitment to change
2. To flesh out what that commitment to change means
3. To do our utmost to help get the balance between press freedom and press reform right
So far – touch wood – the panel debates have been a great success. Admittedly, it is possible their popularity may have something to do with Hugh Grant’s presence amongst the speakers, though there has been no doubting the engagement of the audience on the issues.
Last night the conversation turned, not surprisingly, to News Corporation and the Murdochs. Hugh Grant observed that Labour’s decade long courtship of News Corporation did not fit very well with the party’s history and ideals, “That look didn’t suit you”, Grant said. Jonathan Heawood recognised the need to deal with phone hacking but cautioned against imposing regulation that could constrain investigative journalism. He noted the lack of freedom afforded to many writers round the world, imprisoned for their work or prevented from writing what they want to due to state control.
Brian Cathcart, one of the founders of Hacked Off, set out to demolish some of the misperceptions and myths about press reform. It is not true, Cathcart said, that it is impossible to distinguish what is in the public interest from what simply interests the public. Nor is it true that this is all about ‘one rogue newspaper’. This particular myth will be exposed within the next month or two, Cathcart said, like the ‘one rogue reporter’ line before it. Nor is it the case that reforming the press inevitably means ‘becoming like Zimbabwe’ as some have already argued.
Ivan Lewis responded to this with rather a reflective talk about the importance of a free press, of the need to keep politicians away from any control of the media, and of the need to prevent the dominance of any single media organisation – building on his aim to bring in stricter rules on cross media ownership.
Two down, one to go. Next week Hacked Off heads to Manchester and the Conservative Party Conference. I have a funny feeling it’s going to be quite different to the last two.