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Why Ivan Lewis isn’t completely wrong about journalists

28 September 2011 , ,

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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