Saturday, 1 October 2011

State-registered journalism: what could be worse?

First we had Ivan Lewis MP calling for a state register of journalists, from which malefactors would be "struck off". Next we had Lewis claiming he had been misunderstood.

Now we have George Monbiot publishing his personal register of interests, in the hope that others will follow suit and the public will begin to demand such openness from others. That seems reasonable, no? But then the music starts:

"A voluntary register is a small step towards transparency. What I would really like to see is a mandatory list of journalists' financial interests, similar to the House of Commons registry. I believe that everyone who steps into public life should be obliged to show who is paying them, and how much. Publishing this register could be one of the duties of whatever replaces the discredited Press Complaints Commission."
Suddenly the red lights are flashing. George is calling for a state register of journalists, such as proposed (or not) by Lewis. I am sure, dear readers, you do not need me to spell out how dangerous such a thing would be, but, as I've got nothing better to do for the next five minutes...

The first question is this: What is a journalist? Or, more importantly, where does journalism end and PR or blogging or some other form of writing etc., begin? Certainly I don't consider myself a journalist, but I write for the public via this blog, and although I abjure advertising, if I didn't, I would be getting paid some meagre sum for my output. If Monbiot's plan were actioned, it would be necessary to define what is and what isn't journalism. This would have the pernicious effect of creating a cadre of 'proper' journalists, and de-legitimising everyone else. To be a journalist would thus become a privileged position. It would be like the Party membership card was in communist countries.

Also, let us consider this line: "everyone who steps into public life should be obliged to show who is paying them, and how much". This brings to mind the standard ad hominem tactic of Monbiot, his enviro-ilk and the puritanical zealots of the anti-smoking, anti-drinking, anti-fun brigade.

Whenever someone argues against the latest draconian infringement of individual liberty, they are accused by the puritans of being in the pay of 'Big Tobacco' etc. This is necessarily so within the puritans' narrative, where smokers etc., are mindless automatons, incapable of exercising any kind of control over their actions. If only, we are expected to believe, cigarette packets weren't so damned enticing, we'd never pick them up. This narrative thus requires the state to step into the picture and prohibit individual choice, there being no such thing as far as the puritans are concerned.

Requiring everyone to register and provide all the details of their financial situation can only act as a deterrent to engage in any kind of public debate. Furthermore, we have seen in recent times how the distinction between public and private has all but disappeared. So, the dragnet required for Monbiot's plan grows potentially ever greater. If I tell you I like Guinness, will I now have to publish all my bank details to prove Guinness haven't paid me to tell you this?

In summary, Monbiot's decision to publish his register of interests is fine for him to do, and enables him to rain fire from the moral highground against opponents who he can accuse of being in the pay of vested interests. However, as soon as he calls for others to be forced to follow suit, he loses the highground and becomes just another mouthpiece for state control of everything.

Finally, with regard to a definition of journalism, I recall that Hunter S. Thompson provided one that may serve:
“Journalism is not a profession or a trade. It is a cheap catch-all for fuckoffs and misfits -- a false doorway to the backside of life, a filthy piss-ridden little hole nailed off by the building inspector, but just deep enough for a wino to curl up from the sidewalk and masturbate like a chimp in a zoo-cage.”
You okay with that, George?

Hat tip: Counting Cats

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