A licence to kill freedom of expression

Licensing journalists was a bad idea in John Milton’s day - so why are politicians and editors keen to revive it now?

Patrick Hayes

Topics Free Speech

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‘For who knows not that Truth is strong next to the Almighty; she needs no policies, nor stratagems, nor licencings to make her victorious, those are the shifts and the defences that error uses against her power.’

Who knows not? John Milton, in his 1644 polemic against the Licensing Order of 1643, Areopagitica: A speech of Mr. John Milton for the liberty of unlicensed printing to the Parliament of England, evidently thought he was asking a rhetorical question: surely it’s plain that the truth will out without the help of licences or government policies, which would instead cause ‘the incredible losse, and detriment that this plot of licencing puts us to, more then if som enemy at sea should stop up all our hav’ns and ports, and creeks, it hinders and retards the importation of our richest Marchandize’.

However, it seems that to shadow culture minister Ivan Lewis the hindering and retardation of journalism is a reasonable price to pay for tackling ‘irresponsible’ journalists. After the scandal of phone hacking at the News of the World, Lewis clearly believes that Truth is in need of his help in order to emerge victorious. At the Labour Party Conference last week, Lewis suggested that journalists who are guilty of ‘gross malpractice’ should be ‘struck off’ and prevented from working in the industry, the implication being that a register of those who are fit to practice or not would be drawn up by any future Labour government. Despite stressing the ‘independence’ of such an initiative from government, Lewis failed to explain who exactly would decide what was ‘malpractice’ and what wasn’t. Without state support, how could such a register be enforced? Cue thousands of horrified tweets from journalists from all colours of the political spectrum, including staunch Labour supporters. Within hours, Labour leader Ed Miliband was forced to step in and declare that a journalists’ register was not the party’s official policy.

Rather than being a potential Mugabe-in-the-waiting, what’s telling about Lewis’ idea was that, despite its announcement at the Labour Party’s biggest event of the year, it seemed to have been barely thought through. Not only does this policy hokey-cokey reveal much about the chaotic state of Labour right now, but it also shows how ignorant senior politicians are of the importance of freedom of speech.

Strikingly, however, even after Lewis had gone to ground red-faced, at least one prominent individual within the newspaper trade came out of the woodwork and advocated such a system of licenses. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s The Media Show last week, the new editor of the Independent, Chris Blackhurst, rallied to Lewis’ defence and said he’d made ‘some good points’: ‘I know there’s an issue with the fact that there is a register of journalists, but frankly maybe we should’, he said, ‘there ought to be an ability to have that person removed. Let’s not just look at doctors, all sorts of professions… The Jockey Club. They actually bar jockeys from riding horses. Why can’t we bar journalists from writing articles?’

While emphasising that he didn’t want the state to play a role in issuing such licenses, when pushed on who would issue the license, Blackhurst said he ‘hadn’t thought it through that far’. He didn’t seem to know how to deal with papers that simply chose to opt out, although he suggested that the Press Complaints Commission or another body should have the power to ‘go onto news floors, seize documents, seize computers’. How such an approach could be carried out without the backing of the state went unexplained.

Remarkably, Blackhurst claimed he was taking this shudderingly anti-democratic approach in the name of the public: ‘If you put yourself in the position of the public, what they see is journalists behaving badly and nothing happening to them.’ However, he seemed oblivious to the actual contempt he was showing to the public by floating the idea that they should be prevented from reading articles that a journalist has written, sharing their insights, just because this journalist happens to have been blacklisted.

Blackhurst is not alone in favouring such a licensing system for the UK press. Another commentator for the Guardian claimed that, while Ivan Lewis was wrong to single out journalists, he should instead have focused his draconian gaze on where the ‘real’ power lies: ‘owners, editors and newsroom offices’. And, earlier in the year, Independent columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown stunned BBC Dateline presenter Gavin Esler by praising Italian journalist Annalisa Piras as having ‘quite a good idea’ when she proposed: ‘You don’t want in a democracy people who behave unprofessionally to give information. So why don’t we establish a kind of register and if you actually commit a crime like bribing the police, you are struck off?’ Such is a bizarre sense of ‘democracy’, where people are deprived of one of the most fundamental aspects of it, freedom of expression, in its name.

While there are currently few people openly advocating licenses for journalists, even some of those journalists who oppose formal licensing are actually enforcing an informal kind of licensing, with their suggestion that it’s fine for tabloids to be closed down and that only respectable broadsheet journalism should be protected from the police.

Although he may not be explicitly in favour of licences for journalists, Guardian writer Jonathan Friedland, for example, has declared that the ‘public interest’ was served by the closure of the News of the World: ‘The textbooks of the future will struggle to find a better example of a story in the public interest than that one’, he says referring to the Guardian’s investigation into phone hacking. ‘It had an enormous public impact, from the closure of the NotW and abandoning of the BSkyB bid to the departure of the Met’s commissioner and one of his most senior officers.’

The celebration of the closure of a newspaper as being of ‘enormous public impact’ is licensing in all but name, where we get a subtle – but very powerful – idea that there is a ‘good journalism’ and a ‘bad journalism’, with the reprehensible gutter press broadly unworthy of a licence to print.

And who should deem what is worthy or unworthy of being published? What makes them infallible? As Milton pointed out, ‘The State shall be my governours, but not my criticks; they may be mistak’n in the choice of a licencer, as easily as this licencer may be mistak’n in an author.’ Much the same could be said about a pseudo-state body, such as the Press Complaints Commission, which deems to decide what is in the public interest rather than leaving that judgement to the public itself.

The ‘arrogance’ on behalf of a potential licenser to make such decisions on our behalf was more than evident to Milton, as it should be to us. Which is why any time the idea of licensing journalists is raised, we would do well to adopt his approach of ‘endur[ing] not an instructer that comes to me under the wardship of an overseeing fist’.

Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked. He is producing the debate The rise of the clicktivists: will the revolution be digitised? at the Battle of Ideas festival on Sunday 30 October.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Free Speech


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