Shadow Culture Secratary Ivan Lewis MP has made waves with his suggestion that journalists guilty of “gross malpractice” should be “struck off” — a suggestion that has led to bafflement amongst journalists. Struck off from what, exactly? There is no register, no Law Society, no General Medical Council, no body of learned elders deciding who is and isn’t a reporter. Which is how it should be.
I’m all for journalistic standards. In fact, I’m all for journalism qualifications. I have an undergraduate degree in journalism, and I think it’s served me quite well. I will always fiercely defend the value of journalistic qualifications. (By the way, for an excellent summary of what a journalism qualification can and can’t do, read my City University journalism lecturer Paul Anderson’s thoughts on the Johann Hari scandal here)
But qualification and registration are very different things, and registration is what Lewis must be talking about (you have to be on a register before you can be struck off it).
A register would essentially involve licensing free expression — surely not something that a Labour party seeking to distance itself from the perceived authoritarianism of Gordon Brown and his big clunking fist. You are allowed to write — you are not.
That’s the moral dimension. On a practical level, what exactly does Lewis plan to do when reporters who have been struck off set up blogs and break stories, or amass thousands of followers on Twitter? Will he stop them? Will he have a Chinese-style 50 Cent party, paid to interlude on comment threads to remind readers that “THIS REPORT MAY NOT BE RELIABLE”? Or will websites carry warnings that all content must be taken with pinch of salt?
And who decides what gross malpractice is? At a Reuters debate on the press post-Hackgate last week, the Guardian’s Nick Davies made the odd suggestion that some sort of council could decide what “public interest” is, on a story-by-story basis. Would this same council decide on “gross malpractice”? Who appoints them? What kind of bizarre distortion of the idea of a free press would that be?