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“Come back John Wilkes. Your work is about to be undone. Politicians are losing the plot.”

Tue 27 September 2011, 2:52pm

Well, some politicians.  Specifically, the Labour Party’s shadow culture secretary, Ivan Lewis, MP, who is calling for suggesting a register of professional journalists.  So they can be “struck off” if they transgress.  As Roy Greenslade comments

Lewis and the cheering delegates in Liverpool need to understand the danger of their position.

Look at the contradiction at the heart of Lewis’s crowd-pleasing speech. At one point he said: “In Britain, a free press is non-negotiable.”

At another, when demanding “a new system of independent regulation” he said: “As in other professions, the industry should consider whether people guilty of gross malpractice should be struck off.”

Struck off from what? Though he did not use the words “licence” or “register”, the implication that he favours such a system is clear. Freedom, it appears, is negotiable after all.

Look at countries where newspapers and/or journalists are licensed. Do we want to end up like Robert Mugabe‘s Zimbabwe or King Khalifa’s Bahrain or President Nazarbayev’s Kazakhstan?

Licensing publications inevitably means that governments hold the whip hand, though the internet now makes fools of all dictators (as the Arab Spring revolts illustrated).

Now travel a little further along the Lewis freedom road. Who should decide on who should be struck off? And what crimes should they have committed to warrant losing their licences?

The BBC report quotes Scottish Labour MP, Tom Harris.

“Why would any government or party want to get involved with this?”

Why, indeed?  The Professor has a sceptical cynical take

I’d suggest that they read the Areopagitica, but they are undoubtedly both ignorant of, and contemptuous of, the English-speaking world’s long opposition to press licensing. But the fact that press censorship is part of their strategy after being defeated crushingly tells you a lot about both their connection to reality, and their core instincts.

And, from Instapundit’s opening link, Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing

Given that “journalism” presently encompasses “publishing accounts of things you’ve seen using the Internet” and “taking pictures of stuff and tweeting them” and “blogging” and “commenting on news stories,” this proposal is even more insane than the tradition “journalist licenses” practiced in totalitarian nations.

I’m all for hanging up Murdoch and his phone hackers by their thumbs, but you don’t need to license journalists to get that done: all you need to do is prosecute them under existing criminal statutes. In other words, the only “journalism code of conduct” the UK needs to avert another phone hacking scandal is “don’t break the law.” Of course, it would help if government didn’t court favour with the likes of Murdoch, as was the case under Labour (and is the case with today’s Tories).

For a party eager to shed its reputation as sinister, spying authoritarians, Labour’s really got its head up its arse.

Indeed.

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Comments (8)

  1. Mick Fealty (profile) says:

    Ah… Milton, can’t be referenced enough in this context:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2007/jun/07/woodwormorpathfinders

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  2. Errr … I must defer to greater scholars of Milton than I.

    I thought Areopagitica opposed the registration of individual books: i.e. a pre-publication censorship or an imprimator.

    However, it also endorsed the pre-existing registering of publishers and authors, and approved of post-publication censorship and punishments:

    And as for regulating the press, let no man think to have the honour of advising ye better than yourselves have done in that Order published next before this, “that no book be printed, unless the printer’s and the author’s name, or at least the printer’s, be registered.” Those which otherwise come forth, if they be found mischievous and libellous, the fire and the executioner will be the timeliest and the most effectual remedy that man’s prevention can use.

    If I’m reading that aright, it seems that Ivan Lewis is none too far away from Milton.

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  3. Read: Imprimatur.

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  4. Neil (profile) says:

    Whatever you think of Iain Dale (whose recent claim to fame on Irish TV was that his blog was like Slugger O’Toole, only better)

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  5. Munsterview (profile) black spot says:

    Pete with respect the whole trust of your article is wrong !

    Your article implies that we have a degree of press and other media freedom that is in someway ideal. That is BS of the first order and Mick is not far behind you in this specific.

    How free is a press when a Minister can slap a ‘D’ Notice on any article banning it and where to add insult to injury, it is a further offense to even notify the media readership directly or indirectly that a ‘D’ notice was slapped on a publication concerned to begin with ?

    What is proposed here by Labor is but a logical overt application of what is a covert interference in and manipulation of the British Media for all of the 20th, century. One do not have to go too far back in the 19th, to find the Parnell Forgeries and The Times Scandal. This British Government covert censorship and media interference have a very long pedigree indeed.

    Moving closer to the present, there is a widespread acceptance that the media in these Islands was streamlined by the ‘Services’ into another British Establishment weapon as recommended by Kitson & Co. for use in the Counter Insurgency practices. If all this media manipulation and distortion existed as is agreed, then this raises the question when did this stop, if it indeed it did?

    The hard and harsh facts are that such media interference is ongoing from the planting and running of ‘Sexed Up’ stories in the quality broadsheets to the running of alias creations in the new blog media. We have ongoing direct Government interference at Macro level and interference through alias input at micro commenting levels with everything in between fair game for spook interference.

    The new Labor boyos are all former Blair acolytes, they learned from the hands of a master media manipulator and they are but formalizing what is informal practice in Government circles.

    In closing let me remind all yet again of our Southern Media Situation where all ‘Security Correspondents” are wined and dined monthly at Taxpayers expense by Garda HQ .If in the proceeding month a ‘Security Correspondent’ has run a story reflecting badly on the gardai, they are not invited. Consequently the impulse of the ‘Security Correspondents’ is not to expose the Gardai wrongdoing but rather to ‘tone down’ any colleagues criticisms in their respective papers.

    And some in Irish Public Life are still shocked that the Donegall Garda Scandal could occur ?

    The late Billy Flynn tried to place details of the corruption in the mainstream media without success for a whole two years before. Indeed it took Northern ‘outsider’ journalist to finally break the story and had he not done so and pulled the thread that unravelled the garment, the Gardai would have covered up the Donegal Scandal as they did so many before and since !

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  6. Pete Baker (profile) says:

    Malcolm

    “If I’m reading that aright…”

    Your qualification is noted, and appropriate.

    As the linked article in Mick’s linked article points out

    Milton’s argument, in brief, was that precensorship of authors was little more than an excuse for state control of thought. Recognizing that some means of accountability was necessary to ensure that libellous or other illegal works were kept under control, Milton felt this could be achieved by ensuring the legal responsibility of printers and authors for the content of what they published.

    Did Milton believe that appropriate sanctions should include being ‘unauthorised’ to publish?

    As Mick’s linked article goes on to say

    While the Licensing Order had as its official intent the restoration of the legal protection of the Stationer’s Company monopoly on printing, Milton saw as its byproduct the return of state control over publishing in general. His own experience in having to get his writings on divorce published without license, reinforced his views that a new dogmatic authority was replacing the old. [added emphasis]

    Did Milton support an ‘authorised’ list of publishers/authors/journalists?

    As you quoted yourself,

    Those which otherwise come forth, if they be found mischievous and libellous, the fire and the executioner will be the timeliest and the most effectual remedy that man’s prevention can use. [added emphasis]

    “it seems that Ivan Lewis is none too far away from Milton.”

    Yeah, right, Malcolm. Tell it to the NUJ.

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  7. Pete Baker @ 11:38 pm:

    Thank you for the late night lesson. Good to see we generally agree.

    What that omits is the other emphasis that ought to be there:

    Those which otherwise come forth, if they be found mischievous and libellous, the fire and the executioner will be the timeliest and the most effectual remedy that man’s prevention can use.

    What — as far as I can discern — Milton was condoning there were usual punishments for “false accusers” — the pillory and/or nose-slitting, the same punishments as for bawds, incidentally.

    More serious or repeat offenders had ears nailed to the pillory — but the nail was not later removed: when the offender was “taken down” it involved the ripping the ears to do so. And/or branding “S.L.” (for seditious libel”) on the cheeks.

    It was, after all, a convention of the time. Nathaniel Butter of the Stationers Company had the distinction of being punished serially under Charles I and then by Parliament. Butter was doing little more than Rushbridger does today.

    I feel an urgent need to recall and blog the case of Alexander Leighton in 1630, who got the full treatment, defrocking, fined, gaoled, ears and nose included.

    Thanks to Archbishop Laud, going to the pillory became a mark of Puritan honour. In 1637 the Star Chamber prescribed publication without the imprimatur of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of London, or the two universities, along with the licensing of printing presses. The cases of John Bastwick, William Prynne (offence: describing actresses as “whores”), Lilburne and Henry Burton were a main cause of the Parliamentarians abolishing the Star Chamber.

    The Parliamentary period did not abandon the punishment — it’s just that sentences were not so judicially approved or records kept in such an exemplary manner. After all, Matthew Hopkins may have been unique, but only so in Essex: similar self-appointed types roamed the provinces elsewhere.

    Once the monarchy was restored, we’re back to recording normal operations to keep writers and publishers up to the mark. Among many offenders, Elizabeth Cellier went to the pillory three times in late 1680. Thomas Browne three times for libelling Queen Anne’s government: the first in 1706. Then there were Defoe and Shebbeare.

    The pillory was not abolished until a few days after Victoria ascended the throne (even then, the stocks continued for a further half-century). I believe the last person to be sent to the pillory for “wilful and corrupt perjury” was Peter Bossy, who chose it as the alternative to transportation.

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  8. Munsterview – with respect the whole thrust of your understanding of a D-Notice is wrong !

    “How free is a press when a Minister can slap a ‘D’ Notice on any article banning it”

    First off, it’s not a Minister, specific D-Notices (known as DA-Notices since 1993) are not slapped on individual stories, and articles are not banned. Apart from that, everything in the above statement is correct.

    According to their website: “DA-Notices are issued by the Defence, Press and Broadcasting Advisory Committee (DPBAC), an advisory body composed of senior civil servants and editors from national and regional newspapers, periodicals, news agencies, television and radio.”

    In specific situations, the DA-Notice Secretary can issue advice to the media asking for certain details not to be revealed. There is no such thing as a D-Notice ban, and the secretary has no powers to enforce his request, apart from persuasion. He can be ignored, and the likeliest outcome is nothing.

    You said: “… and where to add insult to injury, it is a further offense to even notify the media readership directly or indirectly that a ‘D’ notice was slapped on a publication concerned to begin with ?”

    This statement reveals several misunderstandings. It may be an offence under the Official Secrets Act or in breach of an injunction to reveal certain things, but to ignore a DA-Notice is not an offence.

    There are really only five general DA-Notices anyway, which are public knowledge; what you probably mean is when the DA-Notice Secretary draws the media’s attention to how a specific action may be damaging to national security, or place a life in danger, as laid out in the five standing DA-Notices.

    There is certainly an argument to be had about self-censorship, since the system is voluntary, but DA-Notces are not legally binding, thus undermining virtually everything you wrote about them.

    Now back to my sick bed.

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