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27 September 2011

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.

By Helen Lewis

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.

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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.