Conference season is barely half-way through, but already we have a strong contender for the most thunderously idiotic and ill-thought-through proposal of the year. I’m referring, of course, to Ivan Lewis’s suggestion that journalists “guilty of gross malpractice” should be “struck off” in the manner of doctors, and prevented from practising journalism again.
Please don’t misunderstand me. Lewis is right to say that there have been utterly appalling examples of malpractice within our trade. The News of the World phone-hacking episodes were the most widely publicised and egregious – sleazy intrusions into the lives of the grieving relatives of murder victims, terror victims, dead servicemen and women. The bizarre, libellous and deceitful behaviour of The Independent’s Johann Hari was almost as damaging to our reputation. Those responsible should not work for newspapers again.
But the idea of a journalists’ register is preposterous. We aren’t medics; there’s no clear delineation between who is a journalist and who isn’t. I probably would be defined as one now, but back in 2007 when I was failing to finish a PhD and submitting the odd piece to a Liverpool FC fan website, would I have had to sign? How about my colleague Alexis Dormandy, who runs a technology company, but also writes for Telegraph blogs? How about the various think-tankers, politicians and academics who fill the national press’s comment pages – do their names get added to the list?
Then, once they’ve signed, what happens? Let’s imagine that Ivan Lewis writes a piece for our comment pages about the need to crack down on rogue journalism. Then imagine that, a few months later, it is revealed that in the article he has made up quotes from supportive voters, invented an entire young family from Hartlepool who have known the pain of phone-hacking, and plagiarised from another journalist’s interview with a victim of plagiarism. The Government’s newly appointed Journalism Czar, sternly aware of the need to make an example of him, has him struck off the General Journalism Council. Ivan Lewis can journalise no more.
What does that mean? We can assume that he can’t write for the nationals any more; probably not local newspapers either. Can he appear on Sky News as a pundit? Maybe. But can they use video footage taken on his phone, if he happens to witness a riot? How about blogging? Can he write his own blog or guest posts at Liberal Conspiracy or Guido Fawkes? Or is that too close to “real” journalism? How about Twitter? Can he write a satirical web comic if he promises to avoid topical subjects? Where does Mr Lewis want to draw the line between journalism and talking? “Journalism” is too diffuse, too hard to define. You wouldn’t simply need to register journalists, you’d need to register official sources of journalism, and you’d have to decide when a blog became too newsy to run without government supervision. And then you’re perilously close to requiring state approval of all media sources. Which is a bit Soviet. Probably not the impression the Labour Party is keen to give.
Maybe you could, with suitably complicated legislation, draw a line of sorts between journalism and non-journalism. Maybe you could avoid the faint whiff of totalitarianism. But even if you do, it would be completely pointless. The best way to punish untrustworthy journalists, and those who employ them, is to make sure everybody knows who they are. Will anybody trust Hari’s writing now that they know where he gets his quotes from? Would the News of the World have been able to continue, with the weight of distrust and disgust hanging around its neck like a millstone? In both cases, the semi-journalism of blogs (including that of Ivan Lewis’s Labour colleague Tom Watson) and Twitter played a key role in uncovering and disseminating the facts. And to think, in Ivan Lewis’s brave new registered world, they’d have needed a licence to do so.