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.

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.