Labour's odd plan to get bad journalists "struck off"

Ivan Lewis has a proposal to clean up the press. Shame it's unworkable and illiberal.

I know it's the season for political kite-flying but I have to confess that I'm completely taken aback by the idea of the shadow culture secretary, Ivan Lewis, that bad journalists should be "struck off" and never allowed to darken a newsroom again. I'm sure his attacks on Rupert Murdoch and News Corp's market dominance will get more coverage but this is worth addressing.

In his speech at the Labour party conference today, Lewis said:

As in other professions, the industry should consider whether people guilty of gross malpractice should be struck off.

To which my response is bafflement, mixed with queasy foreboding. You can strike off doctors, because they have specific professional qualifications (and they perform specific professional duties, such as prescribing medicines). There are no professional qualifications required to become a journalist, despite the best efforts of several postgraduate courses to imply there are. The everyday activities involved in being a journalist are similarly nebulous: talking to people, writing, researching.

What Lewis presumably means, then, is that bad journalists would be banned from employment with established newspapers and magazines. There is no way they can be prevented from writing a blog or having a Twitter account, unless this is even more draconian than it sounds.

So, already this proposal looks hard to enforce. And this is before we get to the idea of a "register" of journalists (which the idea of "striking off" implies). If we look at the countries around the world where the government keeps such a register, I bet they're not the ones you'd regard as shining beacons of democracy and enlightenment. Who would administer the register? What would the appeals procedure be? How much would it cost to join?

Finally, there is the question of cost. On 22 September, the long-delayed NHS database was scrapped, despite the £12.7bn ploughed into it by successive governments; a failure that might remind politicians that bureaucratic database projects are hard, expensive and require careful supervision. Why launch more, needlessly?

I know that Lewis's language is vague at best and there is no firm commitment. But when an idea is this bad, why float it at all?

PS Cory Doctorow has also written on this subject, noting: "For a party eager to shed its reputation as sinister, spying authoritarians, Labour's really got its head up its arse."

Update, 1pm: Ivan Lewis has now clarified his remarks, saying on Twitter: "Journalism is a highly respected profession. Why shouldn't journos found to have commissioned or engaged in phone hacking be struck off." He adds: "I said industry should consider whether gross malpractice should lead to a journo being struck off and i oppose state oversight of press."

The full text of his speech can be found here.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.