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Should journalists be licensed?

October 3rd, 2011

Angela Long begins to ponder the licensing issue

SHOULD journalists have to hold a licence? Say in the same way as a gas boiler service man. The question was raised at the Labour Party conference in Britain last week. It set off the inevitable mini-tornado of shock and horror on Twitter and instant-opinion forums. What, crush the liberty of the valiant upholders of decency, those who shine light into the dark dusty corners of public life? What an appalling vista of state repression and censorship!

And yet….and yet…

As an old hack myself, I was trained and lived in the tradition of journalistic freedom and integrity. We, as news journalists, were there to make sure that the powerful, whether through a vote, a seizure of power or wealth, did not abuse their position. Freedom and justice for all. And nobody should look to vet our copy before it was published or broadcast.

The function of a good newspaper was to “exist in tension with the government of the day”, according to a classic formulation. All that is noble indeed, and desirable to the point of being essential.  Serious journalism still aspires to this ideal, whether it is in the pages of a broadsheet newspaper, or on the blog of an able and thorough independent journalist, such as the US blogger Josh Wolf.

When Ivan Lewis made his suggestion to the Labour Party conference, there was weeping and wailing and cries of “that’s what Mussolini did!” Certainly it’s a grim spectre, of a government doling out licences to report only to those who promise to be poodles and cheerleaders.

Mr Lewis envisioned something like the system of registration for doctors, under bodies such as the General Medical Council and the Irish Medical Council. Lewis story

A general rule of civil liberties is that there should always be less regulation and interference, not more. But look at the current context in our neighbours and friends in Britain and the US: under a free-press system, we have the phone-hacking scandal in the UK, and the dominance of Fox and “fair and balanced” news (a hilarious claim, almost beyond irony).

One could hardly say that journalism is in a great condition. The large, powerful, competitive news organisations seem to have given primacy to market share and profit over providing news that means something to people’s lives. A lot of rubbish can be talked and written about journalism’s role as an essential pillar of democracy. But the fundamental truth is that journalism should largely exist to inform people of the facts in situations where they have to make important decisions which will effect their lives and well-being.

The democratic element is to inform people about the platforms of candidates seeking political office; other important ones are to do with health and financial matters. (Much has been said about the compliant role of the western media in fuelling the property and lending bubble of the early 21st century, that has ended in such disaster. The media, pleasantly lulled by the sound of cash registers ringing up payment for ads for apartments and banks, didn’t look too hard into the possible negatives of a seemingly gravity-proof curve of prosperity.) Today on Irish site politico.ie, a contributor who wanted to know the truth of the debate over Special Needs Assistants in Ireland complained  “I’ve had to give up on public media and I’m trying to find the truth. It’s not easy and the truth which is emerging is complex.” SNA story

What this gentleman identifies is something that mass media hates – complexity. Give me a simple message or give me another story.

What is the media today? The Daily Mail? Piers Morgan? The Sunday Independent? The New York Post? There is also the BBC, the London Independent, The Irish Times (can be dull, but holds the flame of serious journalism). But the current arena does not have an abundance of fine practitioners. Would it be such a terrible thing if journalists had to pass a simple exam in English (or their language of communication) and ethics, and provide referees, to get a form of licence that showed the society had decided they were fit for purpose?  Maybe not.

A state representative in Michigan last year introduced a bill to license journalists, and drew the ire of campaigners. “Our country needs more watchful eyes on our elected officials, not legislation that outlaws the truth from emerging,” declared Jason Stverak. And that’s true – but what sort of watchful eyes do you get in a totally unregulated media scene? Amateurs with blogs and opinion are elbowing out the professionals. It’s a truism that there aren’t many reporters down at the local council meeting any more – they’re all rewriting copy from celebrity news sites about Posh and Becks or Ashton and Demi.

I’m not sure myself yet about licensing. But there are so many threats to proper professional journalism these days – some of them from within the tent itself – that the kneejerk opposition to any filter of practitioners might not be the best reaction.

For more reading: heavy  Academic paper on media

And lighter….Strike them off, says editor

And you might like to hear Carl Bernstein (Watergate) et al on the state of the press…

Guardian panel on media standards

POSTSCRIPT: October 7…British press reports that Ivan Lewis has been taken off the shadow portfolio covering media issues, and put in the ‘safer’ field of international development. This is being attributed by some commentators to a punishment for his ‘ill-judged’ remarks on licensing journalists. So what about free speech? The move is part of a wider reshuffle of the Labour Party’s front bench. But Lewis’s suggestion seemed to so outrage the supposed liberals of the Left establishment that it must have been a factor. Lewis shuffled – Huffington Post

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