Leading article: A challenge to self-regulation

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The initial reaction to the suggestion that journalists guilty of malpractice should be "struck off" – raised yesterday at the Labour Party Conference – was not so much outrage as derision. The words "struck off" were interpreted to mean that a Labour government was going to try to take upon itself the power to decide who could or could not practise as a journalist.

There were certainly aspects of what was said by Ivan Lewis, the shadow Culture and Media Secretary, to give pause, but there was no mention of "licensing" journalists, or of putting them on a "register". Mr Lewis talked of "independent regulation" and said that "the industry should consider whether people guilty of gross malpractice should be struck off".

The phone-hacking scandal that gave rise to the speech has indeed demonstrated that the present system of self-regulation, through the Press Complaints Commission, is just not designed to deal with a major breach of journalistic ethics.

When, for example, doctors or jockeys are accused of professional misconduct, their cases are dealt with not by their employers, nor by the state, but by, respectively, the General Medical Council and the Jockey Club, self-regulatory bodies set up by their industry but bodies with far more clout than the PCC.

In cases where a journalist has been grossly invading the privacy of innocent people, or lying, or otherwise behaving in a manner that calls into question their fitness to be considered a journalist, it would make sense if there were an independent body – made up of people who understand the industry – to sit in judgement on them.

An independent press is a non-negotiable element in a free society. But that is not to dismiss in its entirety Mr Lewis's proposal.

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