This morning’s Guardian carries an editorial calling for the licensing of the press. It doesn’t actually use the L-word, but its proposal for a post-Leveson system of press regulation, where those who signed up to the system would enjoy greater privileges than those who did not, is the closest that a national newspaper has come to demanding the effective licensing of modern-day journalism.
Under the headline ‘Leveson Inquiry: from rot to remedy’, the editorial expresses hope that as the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics enters its final stages, it will give rise to ‘a new form of… independent regulation’ which will have ‘greater powers of investigation and punishment’ than something like the Press Complaints Commission. It says such a system should be ‘non-statutory’ - but that doesn’t mean there won’t be punishments for any press outlets that dare to break the rules or, heaven forfend, that refuse to sign up to the rules in the first place and refuse to become part of what the Guardian unabashedly describes as ‘the system’.
Those press outlets that ‘walk away’ from ‘the system’ could be punished in two ways, suggests the Guardian. First, they could be denied access to basic information, making it bloody difficult for them to newsgather. For example, we might try to ‘limit information, press conferences and events to accredited staff of large publishers’, says the Guardian - that is, to journalists who work for publishers that have agreed to play by the rules of ‘the system’. Independent writers, bloggers, online magazines or small printed press outlets that have no interest whatsoever in signing up to a system devised and governed by mainstream newspapers – all those people would presumably be shut out of the world of information, denied access to knowledge on the basis that they do not play by the rules drawn up by ‘large publishers’.
Secondly, says the Guardian, publishers which refused to sign up to this voluntary system of regulation could be punished financially, too. So it suggests that in libel cases, for example, the courts could be obliged to take into consideration whether the publication being sued is a member of ‘the system’ or not. It suggests that in such cases, ‘costs and damages could be lower for those who were part of the system’. And if you’re not a part of ‘the system’? If you’re a small magazine, an online outlet or a radical newspaper that doesn’t want to be part of what the Guardian and other large publishers deem to be ‘responsible journalism’? Then presumably you’re on your own. You can legitimately be mauled and potentially smashed by the astronomical costs and damages of a modern libel trial.
The Guardian’s proposal, in a nutshell, is to ringfence information, and allow only those who agree to play by the post-Leveson rules to access it, and also to leave ‘non-system’ publications to their own devices when it comes to libel trials. This is a demand for a two-tiered system of journalism, for an official distinction between respectable publications, which deserve full access to knowledge, and unrespectable publications, which deserve to be shut out, left unenlightened. It is licensing by the back door, where in order to practise journalism fully and fruitfully you will need to sign up to and get a nod of approval from ‘the system’. That is, you will need to be licensed by those who presume to know what Good Journalism is.