This item is ironic because conservatives, and I imagine particularly British conservatives, are often accused of, to quote Jethro Tull, living in the past. Something called BoingBoing.net summarizes:
The UK Labour party’s conference is underway in Liverpool, and party bigwigs are presenting their proposals for reinvigorating Labour after its crushing defeat in the last election. The stupidest of these proposals to date will be presented today, when Ivan Lewis, the shadow culture secretary, will propose a licensing scheme for journalists through a professional body that will have the power to forbid people who breach its code of conduct from doing journalism in the future.
Given that “journalism” presently encompasses “publishing accounts of things you’ve seen using the Internet” and “taking pictures of stuff and tweeting them” and “blogging” and “commenting on news stories,” this proposal is even more insane than the tradition “journalist licenses” practiced in totalitarian nations. …
For a party eager to shed its reputation as sinister, spying authoritarians, Labour’s really got its head up its arse.
The Labour Party’s licensing scheme is supposed to be a reaction to the cellphone hacking scandal involving Rupert Murdoch’s London newspapers, most of which do not practice a form of journalism Americans would recognize as being credible. (Whatever you think about the New York Times, it seems unlikely the Times would get involved in hacking cellphones for stories.) The Labour Party’s licensing scheme is more about exerting control over British traditional media, which brings to mind the story of Pandora’s Box.
(As you know, I watch a lot of cop TV, including British cop TV, including the current “Inspector Lewis” series on PBS’ “Masterpiece Mystery.” The heroes of many contemporary British cop TV series get much of their evidence from closed-circuit TV cameras in public places. CCTV is a great plot device, and yet I have yet to hear a contrary comment about the British government’s ability to spy on its citizens. Which makes one wonder how eager Labour really is about shedding “its reputation as sinister, spying authoritarians,” given that Tony Blair’s government installed the CCTV cameras.)
This story drips irony like ink off a newspaper press. A free-market economist would point out the effects of licenses, certifications, registrations and other imprimaturs of official approval. On the one hand, consumers are supposed to look at licenses and certifications as signs of advanced training and skill and professional conduct. On the other hand, licenses and certifications also serve as barriers to entry for those who don’t meet the licensing standard, whether or not the licensing standard is based on legitimate or pertinent criteria.
Britain has a national broadcaster, the BBC, funded by an annual license on televisions. Government financial support of the media is inappropriate, which means that, yes, government should not be funding public broadcasting. (Why shouldn’t government fund media? Because of the favorite definition of the Golden Rule by Lee Sherman Dreyfus, a communications professor before he became chancellor of UW–Stevens Point and governor: He who has the gold makes the rules.) But at least PBS, NPR and Wisconsin Public Radio are funded by general tax dollars, which seems less prone to inappropriate attempts at political influence. (That, however, is an arguable assertion.)
There is additional irony in that British media is more regulated than American media, and yet most American media is less overtly partisan and more responsible than British media. (Truth be told, most of what the traditional media reports is nonpartisan and nonideological, unless you believe there is an ideological agenda behind reporting on car crashes, school news, the weather and the Packers.) In Britain, libel is a crime, whereas libel and slander are civil actions in this country. (And the American standard for proving libel is closer to the criminal beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard than the civil preponderance-of-the-evidence standard.) We have the First Amendment, which leads off the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution. Britain has neither a First Amendment nor a Bill of Rights nor a Constitution. As flawed as our own form of democracy is, we do not have a tyranny of the majority, as is found in parliamentary democracies, and we have regularly scheduled elections, unlike what is found in parliamentary democracies. Notice what changed in this state and in the nation between Nov. 1 and Jan. 1.
And for those who disagree with my assertions in the last paragraph, thanks to not just the First Amendment but technology, the barriers to entry to the media are at about the same comparative level as they were in the days of Ben Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanack.” And the appropriate people who decide whether a media outlet is legitimate or not is media consumers, not anyone else, and certainly not government and its not very well hidden agenda(s).
I’d like to suggest that we Americans are smarter than our overseas cousins, but that’s not necessarily the case. Until 1987, broadcasters were required by the Fairness Doctrine to (theoretically) broadcast opposing views when covering controversial topics, which more often than not meant broadcasters avoided covering controversial topics. This past month, something called the 2011 Wisconsin Media Reform Tour has been crossing the state warning about the evils of, you guessed it, media ownership by those evil corporations, or those evil right-wingers (but they repeat themselves), and getting the airwaves back to “the people,” which always seems to mean the people on the left side of the political spectrum.
Both the British Party and the aforementioned anti-corporate-media types (who seem to forget that every broadcast outlet that is not owned by a nonprofit is most likely a corporation) are fighting a previous war anyway. The Internet is in the process of absorbing the traditional media. In the same way that a free press cannot be regulated, the Internet cannot and should not be regulated either. The reader, listener or viewer — that is, the media consumer — decides what he or she wants to read, and that is how it should be.
Glenn Reynolds adds about Labour:
I’d suggest that they read the Areopagitica, but they are undoubtedly both ignorant of, and contemptuous of, the English-speaking world’s long opposition to press licensing. But the fact that press censorship is part of their strategy after being defeated crushingly tells you a lot about both their connection to reality, and their core instincts.
I’d suggest the British read their expatriate, Thomas Jefferson: “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”