You got a license for that keyboard?

By Jack Shafer
September 27, 2011

Ivan Lewis energized freethinkers everywhere today by proposing that the naughty U.K. press be reined in by “a new system of independent regulation.” In his speech to the Labour Party conference, the Labour shadow culture secretary called for the press to “consider whether people guilty of gross malpractice should be struck off,” by which he meant banned from the practice of journalism.

The U.K. press immediately roared back—all but accusing Lewis of campaigning for a cabinet position as Minister of Censorship. Lewis then retreated on Twitter. “I said industry should consider whether gross malpractice should lead to a journo being struck off and i oppose state oversight of press,” he wrote.

By the end of the day, Lewis was backpedaling faster, telling the BBC, “I regret the fact that there has been a response to something that I didn’t say.”

Yeah, yeah, Ivan, but I think we got your message the first time: When a scandal swallows police, newspaper executives, media moguls, private detectives, the prime minister, and journalists, your remedy would not be jail time for those who broke existing laws. What you want is a special “independent” body that would ostracize and shun the rotten journalists. Maybe even build a leper colony for them.

But as Helen Lewis-Hasteley writes on the New Statesman website today, no mechanism exists in the U.K. to disbar or otherwise “strike off” a rotten journalist. The news profession doesn’t accredit journalists—they’re not like doctors or lawyers or accountants with specific professional qualifications! It follows that there’s no industry-wide consensus on what constitutes gross journalistic malpractice. Likewise, the U.K. has no power to create a registry to prevent rotten journalists from practicing their craft, which means implementing Lewis’ modest proposal  would require a law spanning all print and electric media. You’d have to govern the U.K. the way the Communist Party governs China if you wanted to appoint guardians to stand at the gates of the Web to prevent shamed individuals from setting up blogs or otherwise expressing themselves.

Even if such a registry of banned journalists were conjured into existence, posits Lewis-Hasteley, how would it be enforced? She writes:

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?

Maybe Lewis can figure this all out by staging a fact-finding mission for himself and other members of Parliament to Zimbabwe and Nicaragua, where the state licenses (PDF) journalists.

“Will [Lewis] jam bloggers from outside Britain?” asks Roy Greenslade in the Guardian. “Are we to take the Chinese path by setting up a battery of digital censors located in some Whitehall technology centre?”

Lewis isn’t alone in calling for a new regulatory apparatus. Tory Prime Minister David Cameron made similar noises in July—sans the “striking off” innovation. Cameron called for the establishment of a new regulatory body that would be “independent” of both the press and the government. How the new watchdog agency Lewis and Cameron advocate would differ from the current, voluntary watchdog, the incompetent Press Complaints Commission, is not obvious. The Economist recently judged the PCC as not “so much toothless as blind” in investigating and policing the phone-hacking scandal (which is just about right) and called for the PCC to be put out of its misery.

If truly independent of the press and state, the new regulator would have no power and be accountable to nobody. That would amount to reinventing the PCC. If given the power to police the press, the new regulator’s existence would be a greater crime against humanity than all the phone-hackings put together.

There is no shortage of laws on the books to deter a resurgence of phone-hacking. Phone-hacking is against the law, as is ordering an employee to hack phones. Paying bribes to police is against the law. Destroying evidence is against the law. Perjury is against the law. If U.K. journalists violated these laws, U.K. police and U.K. courts have plenty of “regulatory” power to punish their “gross malpractice” without setting up a new version of the PCC.

In 1704, Daniel Defoe confronted an earlier set of censors with his pamphlet “An Essay on the Regulation of the Press.” He had it much worse: Back then, both the meddling state and the church hassled writers.

“To cure the ill use of liberty, with a deprivation of liberty,” Defoe wrote, “is like cutting off the leg to cure the gout in the toe, like expelling poison with too rank a poison, where both may struggle which poison shall prevail, but which soever prevails, the patient suffers.”

Will somebody pass along to Lewis that—especially in the Web era—there are no journalists? There are only acts of journalism. People who commit acts of journalism for a living deserve no special treatment from the government, such as shield laws. But neither do they deserve new laws or “voluntary” regulations that would blackball them.

******

There’s another great line in the Defoe pamphlet that I couldn’t squeeze into this piece. “I know no nation in the world, whose government is not perfectly despotick, that ever makes preventive laws, ’tis enough to make laws to punish crimes when they are committed, and not to put it in the power of any single man, on pretence of preventing offences to commit worse.” Send your favorite Defoe lines to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com or rescue me from the lonely island of my Twitter feed. (This RSS feed rings every time a new Shafer column goes live. This hand-built one rings every time a correction is filed.)

PHOTO: The last edition of News of the World newspaper goes on sale alongside other British Sunday newspapers in London July 9, 2011. REUTERS/Paul Hackett

2 comments

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Government officials always want to regulate everything, but they don’t want to be regulated.

Posted by M.C.McBride | Report as abusive

Freedom of the press codes were created to protect ciizens against a government that would restrict the free expression of ideas. Today such protection from government control is still just as necessary, but mass electronic communication has created a new, related hazard: the ability of wealthy individuals and businesses to deliver such pervasive propaganda that the spread of contrary opinions is hampered.

Since large electronic communication companies now have more power to sway public opinion than any freely elected government can muster, the danger to citizens from runaway journalism is not insignificant. Owners such as Rupert Murdoch now pose a hazard to the free and effective dissemination of individual opinion. Technology has advanced, and today need protection from other powerful entities, not just from governments.

Posted by Ralphooo | Report as abusive