Why Ivan Lewis isn’t completely wrong about journalists

The fiasco over Shadow Culture Secretary Ivan Lewis’s call for journalists to be registered has rather obscured what should be a good point of debate: the degree to which journalists or editors should be held personally responsible for what they do.

As I wrote earlier in the year about media regulation:

There needs to be a much greater sense of individual, personal responsibility by journalists and editors for how they behave. This is best illustrated by the classic doorstepping exercise trawling for a story that many newspapers carry out. That sort of exercise can be justified – it is, after all, how the Mail unearthed the David Abrahams Labour donations scandal, by doorstepping all the supposed Labour Party donors in turn until it discovered some that were not. That is the sort of investigative journalism we should not merely tolerate but welcome.

But – and it is a big but – I also know of several people who have been caused huge personal distress by journalists on similar fishing trips appearing on their doorsteps and then behaving in a rude and intrusive manner, trying to tease out information by scaring those they are talking to. The problem is that all the pressure is on the journalist to come back with a story. If they don’t, they – and possibly their boss – can get criticism for failing to produce a story yet taking up time and money on a wild goose chase. Yet if the journalist oversteps the mark and leaves someone in tears? There is no comeback. The pressure is all one way and so we should not be surprised by the result.

That sense of personal immunity can be changed. Rulings by whatever succeeds the current PCC could name the responsible journalists and editorial staff and hold them, rather than simply their title, to account for example.

Ivan Lewis’s policy initiative may be one for filing straight in the “how not to do it” pile of policy launches, but the question of how much personal responsibility those in the media should have for their actions deserves better than to be forgotten as a result.

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4 Comments

  • Sledgehammer to tackle a nut. A few bully boys on a few of the nationals who don’t care whose toes they tread on to get a story – and you get ghastly ideas like Lewis’.

    We have fewer than a dozen national dailies (some of them responsible) – and how many dozens of local dailies and weeklies, where the journalists and editors live in the communities they cover? Alongside the people they’re writing about. They are more likely to be threatened by thugs who don’t want their court case in the paper than they are to push innocent people too far on the doorstep.

    Local police forces I know of, when someone dies in tragic circumstances, have family liaison officers and so on. They help the family prepare a tribute statement for the local media, with a photo, and distribute it. Making it clear the family wish to be left alone. No need in point in doorstepping after that.

    Police putting photographers’ lives in danger by seeking photos/footage of protests, riots etc: that’s an issue to worry about.

  • Old Codger Chris 1st Oct '11 - 10:05pm

    @Ian Sanderson
    Salesmen usually depart without camping out on their victim’s lawn and / or interviewing the neighbours.

    @John Brace
    Power and wealth are the operative words. All too often the national press go after the vulnerable. And all too often they’re amazingly ignorant in every sense of the word. Didn’t the News of the World once name a pediatrician as a paedophile?

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