My Big Mouth: Are Ivan Lewis’ plans to have journalists ‘struck off’ workable?

By Paul Berentzen

Shadow Culture Secretary Ivan Lewis’ speech at the Labour Party Conference, in which he appeared to advocate licensing journalists, begs a few questions.

Who is going to regulate journalists in this new system? How can a formal register of journalists be implemented in the digital age? What about the freedom of the press? What on Earth was he thinking?

While the social media backlash that followed his speech has since forced him to rethink his approach, Lewis’ choice of words has caused a good deal of controversy – not least of all among journalists.

Freedom of the press, a fundamental principle of the media in this country and the key to a fair and democratic state, should not be trifled with lightly. Lewis even said as much in his speech.

However he followed his statement almost immediately by proposing a stricter regulating system that “should consider whether people guilty of gross malpractice should be struck off”.

While he may now insist that he never advocated a register of licensed journalists, one does have to wonder what else they could be struck off from.

To be fair, the recent media revelations have left us in no doubt that the current system is far from perfect. But that does not mean we need the government to impose itself upon the entire industry in response to the actions of a few.

Just because a few kids start misbehaving in the playground, you don’t cancel playtime for everyone.

Heavy handed government intervention means any regulation can never be truly independent, and so it is bound to erode press freedom.

Statutory control of the media would be a clear step backwards, infringing the liberty of many in order to set the minority straight.

How can the media possibly perform its duty to society, as a check upon those in power, when the people it is supposed to keep in line have given themselves the upper hand?

Lewis appears to be confusing the problems that occur when an individual or group gains too much power and influence – he specifically named Rupert Murdoch a couple of times – with the problem of unscrupulous journalists.

His comments come across more like a sound bite to appeal to a public that is disillusioned with the media rather than any sort of coherent proposal.

Then comes the question of how he hopes to formally regulate the media in the digital age, where self-publishing has never been easier.

Who draws the line between amateur blogger and serious news organisation? And where do they draw it?

Short of imposing strict censorship on the country’s internet, there is no way of controlling online publication. It is all or nothing.

The hazy definition of what constitutes journalism makes the ideas that Lewis seemed to propose impractical at best. His vague proposals range anywhere from extreme and tyrannical to clumsy and unnecessary.

There are two kinds of unscrupulous journalist: those that get found out and those that don’t.

No regulatory body, whether independent or state-run, can control what goes undetected. And those that get caught out will find that there are too many good journalists in a highly competitive industry to survive, without the need to strike anybody off.

Ivan Lewis, in his brief comments on the media, has either spouted empty rhetoric or launched a one-man offensive on the free press.

He either sacrificed substance for soundbites, offering vague proposals with the intention of changing little, or he hinted at a controversial large-scale overhaul of the country’s media.

And given Labour’s need to establish itself as a credible alternative to the coalition, with clear and recognisable policies, it is hard to say which one would be worse for them.

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