Serving professional journalism since 1912

Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

The Institute: meeting new challenges all the time

The Institute has been around for over 130 years and in that time succeeding generations of journalists have faced up to the myriad challenges posed by events, governments and changing technology – not least the shadow cast by two world wars. For our generation the threat may be more pernicious, if less personally dangerous. In the 21st Century we operate in an environment which endangers the very future of journalism as we have known it.

The writing was on the wall with Leveson: it became open season on the press as a result of the unscrupulous – not to mention illegal – behaviour of a small number of journalists. A carefully stage-managed inquiry, the politically motivated shills of Hacked-Off and a public manipulated into exasperation saw journalists’ popularity plunge to near politician-like depths and an unwilling press dragged into a regime of quasi-state regulation.

To make matters worse, we now find the Government using against the press the legislation designed for anti-terrorism and organised crime. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) has proved a useful tool for a political class obsessed with managing the media: providing ready access to journalists’ phone records as a handy tool for catching sources. It is not just journalists, of course. With RIPA, we have already seen the misuse of powers on a huge scale: local councils conducting covert surveillance to ensure such heinous crimes as not living in the correct school catchment area or not putting out the correct waste bins are caught and punished. There is a raft of similar legislation either already on the statute books or lined up and ready for an increasingly supine Parliament to rubber-stamp. The icing on the cake will be the Snoopers’ Charter, an unrestricted licence for the state to browse electronic information at will, the sort of tool that dictators and despots could only dream of in earlier ages.

Solidarity

It is against this background that the solidarity of journalists has wavered. The downsizing of media organisations, the increasing use of “citizen journalists” as a free alternative to professional news-gatherers, and the growth of internet news organisations has fractured the industry and weakened the ability of journalists collectively to resist these measures. At a time when journalists should be strong, Leveson has cowed us and made us weak in the face of hostile public opinion.

We sometimes forget the dual role of the Institute. Unlike other organisations, we are not just a professional body, but also a trade union. This makes us more than a mouthpiece for the interests of our profession: it imposes upon us an obligation to fight for the rights of journalists both within and without our membership. For too long, trade unionism has been painted in political colours: as the vanguard of some socialist movement or as a handy source of funds for a collection of political parties mainly occupying the left of the political spectrum. But to view trade unionism in that light is to ignore the history of the movement since its inception. The Tolpuddle Martyrs fought not for the Labour Party but for the rights of workers. Our fight is not one which is associated with a political party, nor even a side of the political spectrum. It is more important than that.

Free press

For the health of democracy in this country we need a free press: one in which journalists can operate without the threat of government continually monitoring their communications and one in which sources can feel secure that the full weight of the state is not about to be turned upon the task of tracking them down.

If we fail, then journalism fails and the state wins. Our free press will be no more, reduced to the rewriting of Government press releases and reporting cats stuck up trees and school sports days lest the state deploy its powers.

By definition, fighting for a free press is a political fight, but one with a small ‘p’. We have no interest in political parties or electoral advantage: we are free to fight for what is clearly right.

As both a union and a professional body we not only have a right but a positive duty to ensure our voice is heard. If we fail to maintain a free press, then we will have failed to heed one of the starkest warnings of history. It was Josef Goebbels who said: “The media is the orchestra on which the government plays its music.”

Mark Croucher

Vice-President, Chartered Institute of Journalists