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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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.