Fox (n): carnivore of genus vulpes; crafty person; scavenger; (vb) to confuse; -ed (adj): to be drunk.
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Tuesday 27 September 2011

License to grill.

IT IS to be expected that in a year which has involved Ryan Giggs, superinjunctions and a phone-hacking scandal some politician would get up on his hindlegs and blame everything on an unfettered Press.

Journalists always get the blame when they catch someone out, not least by the person who was caught. Ho-hum and fiddle-de-dee.

Already this year there's been calls for privacy laws, largely made by people who want publicity when they feel like it and secrecy when they don't. And today Shadow Culture Secretary Ivan Lewis - himself exposed by tabloids for pestering a young female aide with inappropriate texts - will tell the Labour Party Conference he wants to see licensing for journalists, with a system of "being struck off" if they're guilty of gross misconduct so they'll never work again.

Except - who's in control? Whether it's a privacy law or licensing, someone has to administer it. Someone who can draw a line in the sand which every single person in the country would agree with.

Politicians? Ooh, no thanks. We'd never know about MPs' expenses if we did that. I haven't forgotten, although they have, how many MPs excoriated the Daily Wellygraph for paying £75,000 for stolen data, criticised the 'intrusion' and urged the then-Speaker of the House of Commons to pursue court action and injunctions to plug the leak. We also wouldn't know about a dodgy dossier which took our country to war in Iraq on a lie, a Home Secretary's attempts to prosecute an Opposition MP for publicising a damaging leak about her own department, Jeffrey Archer's perjury and a million and one other stories. If a politician decided who could write the news we'd end up with a Government press release to read over our cornflakes every morning.

Judges? They'd stick to the law, surely, and be impartial. Except in the case of celebrities, privacy, superinjunctions, and stories about other judges. Lawyers are over-cautious to the nth degree and tend to err on the side of 'never publish something that someone somewhere might not like and might, with a squint and a following wind and not looking at the evidence be a little bit ripe for an old man who doesn't watch the X Factor to understand'. If a judge censored our news today's editions would be tied up in legal fannying-about until some point after Christmas and would look something like this:

Or how about the media itself? People like me with a vested interest in sticking our noses in everywhere, willy-nilly. No, probably not a good idea for us to be in sole charge either. The police could enforce censorship I suppose, but there's a few nations trying that already and I don't much fancy newspapers like they have in Saudi Arabia.

Perhaps we could ask the public? Very democratic. Except we don't want Mrs Miggins at no74 to have a say, she's a dreadful racist. And that bloke across the way, the one with the loud music and all the girlfriends, he can't be relied on. No it will have to be the bits of the public that are well-behaved, polite, dress the right way, shop in the right places, think the same way as... oh. Not so many of them, are there? And let's not forget the public voted for Hitler, the public buy Coldplay records. They cannot always be trusted.

And how do we define gross misconduct? Having to make a payment, or an apology, or being found to break the Code of Conduct? I know of dozens of stories where newspapers have paid to settle-out-of-court because it's cheaper than fighting it and budgets are tight. I've had to write apologies to someone I know, but just cannot prove, to be guilty and most hacks have fallen foul of the code at some point by genuine mistake. Some of the reporter's tricks I think are right or wrong others disagree with; one hack's gross misconduct is another's prize-winning scoop. And heaven forfend we have to start licensing every blogger who calls themselves a journalist.

When  it comes to controlling the Press there are problems with every option, flaws so bad it makes you raise your eyebrows and whistle through your teeth once you think it through. What Mr Lewis and everyone else who bangs on about Press regulation has forgotten is that we already have it.

The courts and politicians already influence what we can report. The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, Contempt of Court Act 1981, defamation laws, and a few words about privacy in the European Convention on Human Rights among other statutes constrict and confine the Press pretty well. The rules get pushed and tested and sometimes broken or changed; those that overstep the mark, quite rightly, get hauled before the beak to explain why and can be fined or jailed if they don't have a good reason.

The public already have a say. Up to 20million people read a tabloid newspaper every day, and millions more read our websites. If they don't like what we do they vote with their feet and their wallets, and we have to try harder. There are many reasons why the Screws of the World closed down but by far the most important is that it had lost the trust of its readers.

Last but not least there's self-regulation. The Press Complaints Commission could do with a few more teeth but editors take turns to sit on it and judge each other. There's not much room for favouritism. By far the strongest part of the system is that Fleet Street is a meritocracy - if you fail too many times you're out on your ear. If you get a reputation for costing your newspaper thousands in libel payouts you won't get another job easily. If you mire your newspaper in scandal The Editor will not look on you kindly, unless you're called Johann Hari and we've yet to see if his career survives long-term.

I do not want any one of those people to have a say in what I am able to report on or read. I want ALL of them to have a say.

It is far better to have a long, never-ending argument between everyone - a constant tug-of-war keeping the Press, politics and lawyers in check as the public throw their weight behind one or the other, forcing them all to compromise and find a way to muddle along.

It's not a perfect system, doesn't always work as it should, but what we've got right now is the best anyone's managed to come up with. Like democracy, or the Royal Family - there's plenty of flaws and fruitloops but in the end it usually evens out.

No-one's needed a licence to be a journalist in the 300 years since the first paper was printed in Fleet Street. You just have to be nosy and a little bit mad, the kind of person no-one else wants in their club. That's why politicians, judges and the public don't like us, and it's the reason why our Press with all its defects is still free.

Licences for journalists? 
What next, an exam to be Prime Minister?