'Regulation is needed to keep out charlatans'

By Dominic Ponsford

Neither
a trade nor a profession – journalism is open to charlatans, miscreants
and the literary equivalent of snake-oil salesmen.

This is the view put forward by an NUJ consultation paper which
argues it is time journalists were regulated – in the same way that
accountants, lawyers, surveyors and CORGI gas installers are.

The benefits, it argues, could be better pay, higher public esteem and improved standards.

The drawbacks could be more exams for everyone and the possibility of being drummed out of the job for those who make mistakes.

Chris Wheal from the NUJ Professional Training Committee (ProfCom) is behind the report.

He said: “To ignore the issue of registration of journalists would be to try to hold back the tide like King Canute.

Recent
history of regulation reform in general, plus the growing expectations
of the public and interested parties, suggests that there will be moves
towards formal regulation and/or registration of all professions and
trades.”

The report points out that in Italy all journalists have
to be a member of the Ordine dei Giornalisti in order to practice.
Members must work for at least three months and then take an exam –
according to Wheal, the result is that journalists in Italy are highly
thought of and better paid.

ProfCom has put forward four potential models for regulation (see box-out).

According
to Wheal, current regulation in the form of the Press Complaints
Commission and the laws of libel and contempt concentrate on dealing
with errors after publication.

He said: “While post-publication
work and ethics need to be monitored, we also need to step in earlier
and look at how and why uneducated and untrained people are getting
into journalism with little or no idea about what most of us consider
to be the basics.

“Once in, we also need a method of ensuring
that journalists stay up to speed on the changing legal and ethical
framework in which they operate.”

Wheal said he is keen to
encourage as wide as possible a debate on the issue, with the
possibility of putting a motion to the NUJ’s annual delegate meeting
next year.

Wheal’s proposals have met with scepticism from the Chartered Institute of Journalists, which currently has 1,500 members.

CIoJ
general secretary Dominic Cooper said: “We try to encourage standards
through our own code of ethics and code of practice, and by supporting
the NCTJ exam. There’s no formal structure for monitoring these things
other than members taking a grievance against someone who they think
hasn’t upheld standards.

“To become a journalist you need to
write and write well. Lots of people enter the profession by various
methods – it would be interesting to see how they think a formal
structure could be put together.”

Professional Training Committee suggestions

REGULATION MODELS

Model 1 All journalists to pass an entry exam and attend update
courses every three to five years. Failure to pass the exam after three
attempts would result in being struck off and unable to trade as a
journalist.

Model 2 A central register of journalists. No courses or exams but a
standards and a complaints system with sanctions and the possibility of
being struck off.

Model 3 Journalists establish a professional
body that sets entry requirements and ongoing professional development.
Although membership is voluntary, the new body would urge public and
employers to deal only with professionals.

Model 4 Independent (possibly state appointed) professional body which would set minimum standards for entry.

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