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Labour's half-baked plan backfires

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Opinion New Labour showed both its technological illiteracy and authoritarian streak by floating plans to establish an official register of journalists from which miscreants might be struck off.

Shadow culture secretary Ivan Lewis suggested the idea as a sanction against rogue reporters in the wake of the ongoing News International phone hacking scandal. Speaking at the Labour party conference in Liverpool on Tuesday, Lewis suggested "people guilty of gross malpractice should be struck off" some sort of national register of qualified journalists.

News organisations would keep a a national register of hacks under the scheme, which is riddled with problems. For one thing most of the "gross malpractices" Lewis seems most concerned about, such as phone hacking, are already covered by criminal law. Gross malpractice can also result in dismissal.

So why the need to establish what one news outlet described as a "Mussolini-style" national register?

Although Lewis later backtracked (telling the BBC "I don't favour state oversight of the press") in the face of criticism, his initial idea seems to be that journalists should be part of a licensing scheme, much like doctors or lawyers, and not allowed to practise if they've done something seriously wrong.

Journalism is a trade rather than a profession, such as medicine. Doctors have to go through through a well-established, extensive training programme to work for a limited number of potential employers.

It's against the law to pass oneself off as a doctor. There are several well-regarded training programmes that lead into a career in journalism, but these are not a requirement to earning a living from writing. In addition, there are thousands of news outlets, a proliferation of media spurred on by the internet.

So even if national newspapers and broadcasters agreed to a licensing scheme (highly unlikely), then that still leaves news websites, blogs, podcasts and many other outlets for journalistic content.

For better or worse, we live in an era of citizen journalism. Regulation is not going to prevent people publishing a blog or maintaining a scurrilous Twitter feed.

Although salaried journalists tend to look down on news blogs, political bloggers such as Paul Staines (posting as Guido Fawkes), Dizzy Thinks and Liberal Conspiracy have each broken stories and shaped political debate over recent years. In sport, sites such Zonal Marking have provided tactical insight into football that is often missing from mainstream terrestrial coverage, while the Football Ramble podcast provides an irreverent round-up of the week in world football.

Lewis's policy initiative is not only muddled and unworkable but detracted from the intended message of his speech about the need for improved independent press regulation in the wake of the Hackergate affair. The speech was a gift that Labour's political opponents both inside Westminster and on Fleet Street have already begun to exploit.

Conservative MP Louise Mensch, who sits on the influential culture, media and sport select committee, said: "Ivan Lewis must be going for the record for the fastest U-turn in history. This is another half-baked idea from a weak Labour leadership. We need a free, fair press, not some state registry for journalists."

Trade mag UK Press Gazette openly mocked the journalist register plan while the Daily Mail described the idea as a "creepy attack on press freedom". The Sun, the best-selling paper in the controversial News international stable, described the proposal as "bizarre" and "crazy" before adding that party bosses quickly rejected the idea as part of a swift U-turn.

Labour is advocating tougher laws against cross-media ownership in an attempt to lessen the influence of the Murdoch media empire. But such plans will now be much more difficult to sell after Lewis, a senior Labour politician, floated his wacky ideas. Critics will argue the party is against an independent press and free expression through a diverse range of outlets. Labour has inadvertently strengthened the position of media barons, whose power and excesses the politicians want to curtail. ®

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