Just moments after counsel for the Leveson Inquiry Robert Jay QC said yesterday: “let us assume, Mr Dacre, that licensing of journalists may well be unattractive to virtually everybody, including this Inquiry” – Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre went on to propose pretty much just that.
To everyone’s surprise, Dacre suggested that one solution to the “Desmond problem” of how to lock rogue publishers into a new system of self-regulation would be to reform the press card system. He stressed that this was his idea alone, not a PCC or Pressbof one, but it has to be noted that he is a leading member of both those bodies – and is also the UK’s most powerful newspaper editor – so he has great influence over both.
It’s worth recapping on exactly what he said:
As you’ve said, there have been several calls to your Inquiry for the licensing of journalists. It is clearly unacceptable. However, I do believe there’s an opportunity to build on existing haphazard press card system – there are 17 bodies at the moment providing these cards – by transforming it into an essential kite mark for ethical and proper journalism.
The key would be to make the cards available only – only – to members of print newsgathering organisations or magazines who have signed up to the new body and its code.
The public at large would know the journalists carrying such cards are bona fide operators, committed to a set of standards and a body to whom complaints can be made. Reporters and photographers would use the cards as proof that they are responsible journalists.
There would, however, be universal agreement that briefings and press conferences by government bodies, local authorities and the police, access to sporting, royal and celebrity events, material from the BBC and ITV, and information from medical and scientific bodies would only, only be given to accredited journalists.
It would, after all, be in the interests of those bodies to agree to this, as many of their members make complaints to the PCC. Indeed, such bodies would have – or shouldn’t have access to the new regulator if they dealt with a non-accredited journalist.
It is my considered view that no publisher could survive if its reporters and writers were barred from such vital areas of journalistic interest. It would be part of the civil contract, if you like, that the ombudsman figure would have the right to recommend that accredited journalists guilty of gross malfeasance have their press cards cancelled, as the GMC strikes off doctors.
I think the beauty of the system, the attraction of the system, is it will be the newspaper industry registering and disciplining journalists, not the state.
There would be no threat to freedom of opinion, because non-press card holders would still have the freedom to express their views, and commercial interest would dictate that every publisher signed up to regulation.
I think there is some merit to Dacre’s suggestion. As I wrote in July – gas fitters, surveyors, solicitors – all have to register in order to ensure that members of the public are protected.
Isn’t journalism just as important?
By ensuring that those involved in “news” – covering court, council, government press conferences and so on for bona fide titles – are on ‘Dacre’s list’ could help rebuild a more professional journalism trade on secure ethical foundations.
As he suggested, access to embargoed government press releases and other forms of official information would also be limited to organisations which sign up to the Editors’ Code.
Press Gazette’s idea for a journalists’ pledge, outlined in our Journalism Manfesto, could also be tied in to the new press card system.
Bent teachers, doctors and lawyers can all be ‘struck off’ – so why not dodgy journalists too?
The Dacre system wouldn’t stop all sorts of individuals not on the list from contributing to news organisations as columnists, bloggers and freelance feature writers.
But it would ensure that staffers involved in news are subject to a minimum level of training and standards.
It could also tackle help tackle recent problems exposed by:
- The Johann Hari plagiarism scandal
- News of the World private investigator Derek Webb becoming a card-carrying member of the NUJ
- The apparent legal ignorance of some sport journalists covering the Harry Redknapp tax evasion trial.