The Disraeli Room

The Disraeli Room

Blog Post

Licence to Print: An alternative to press regulation

14th August 2014

Is journalism a profession or a trade? Either way, should professional journalists, who seek to earn their living from the reporting of news and current affairs, be required to hold some form of accredited licence? I once raised this possibility at an informal meeting in a committee room in the House of Commons, and was howled down by a heady mix of fellow hacks and MPs.

The issue of licensing journalists, in the way of lawyers or doctors, is clouded by deep emotions. This is partly a legacy of the history of establishing the freedom of the press in the UK. From a time even before the press had been fixed in many minds as the fourth estate (after church, aristocracy and commons). The emotive response has always been that licensing journalists equates a priori to a restriction on newsgatherers, if not newsgathering, and it has been used as a shibboleth to close down a debate before it is allowed to begin, a priori, you might well say.

But the recent spate of trials, and convictions, of journalists involved in phone hacking, and in future trials, of suborning public officials, raises questions about the nature of modern journalism that will not go away and are not easily answered. These concern, as much as anything, the boundaries of journalism in a fast-paced and ever-changing world.

It used to be simpler, back in the mid-nineteenth century, when leaks to the press on the scale of Edward Snowden’s revelations, far from being prosecuted by a vengeful state, were, if not lauded, at least ruefully acknowledged as a ‘scoop’. In 1878, The Times managed to get hold of, and publish in advance, a complete copy of the international treaty, signed that year in Berlin, dealing, as ever, with the ‘Balkan question’. Twenty years earlier, the legendary editor of The Times, John Delane, was the bane of Queen Victoria, who complained he knew before she did – and eagerly published – details of bills not yet laid before parliament.

There was an unspoken code that despite the demands of newspapers to publish and be damned, it was gentlemen who were in charge. That changed, as it was bound to, with the more urgent call of making money – and exercising power. Baldwin’s assertion that newspapers, like harlots, exercised power without responsibility, could equally apply today, but at least broadcasting, with its accepted legal regulation of standards of fairness, ensured a more evenhanded source of news. With the internet, however, we have again the precise opposite: a return to rumour and gossip, frequently malign.

A bigger change for the better in journalism in the past 30 years has been an emphasis on training, both its requirement and its availability. In the slow accretion of degree courses specifically in journalism, long overdue, new recruits have half a chance to appreciate just what is – and should be – involved in serious newsgathering, not least its ethical aspect.

Against this trend has to be set the continuation of the worst kind of redtop journalism. The scurrilous, mendacious and malicious celebrity-led copy that assaults the reader daily, and from which she or he has to make some kind of sense, is insulting at all levels. Barnum, of Barnum and Bailey fame, once said that he never lost money by underestimating public taste. It is a motto that might have been made for today’s tabloid press. We are back to phone hacking.

The aftermath of Lord Leveson’s massive inquiry, triggered by that widespread illegal practice, has led to a messy situation with regard to corporate regulation. Betwixt and between the newspapers’ own desire for some form of (what else?) self-regulation, and the Establishment’s desire for a statutory body, that mess seems set fair to continue until well past the next General Election.

So it seems like a good time to begin a debate in which the spotlight is turned the other way, onto individual journalists, and their responsibilities to the public. We know there is a credibility gap: that newspaper stories are not believed by the reading public as once they might have been, whatever the source, and whoever the author. As with the scepticism with which politics and politicians are currently viewed, some of this distrust is healthy: for us, for democracy. But much is not.

If journalists were to be in some way licensed to do their work, it might be fruitful to look not at doctors or lawyers as a model – too formal and restrictive – but at teachers, who can now be barred through the National College for Teaching and Leadership. This goes along with mandatory teacher training, and an emphasis on creation and maintenance of high standards. If journalists knew that if they resiled from the principles they were taught to adhere to, including their ethical component, they too could be barred, perhaps we might move, albeit slowly, toward the kind of press of which we could once more, as a nation, be rightly proud.

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