Licensing journalists: a maybe good, maybe terrible, definitely complicated proposal

What is a journalist? What is a journalistic act? What’s the best way to protect the rights of journalists? Can we trust journalists to identify and monitor one another?

This Saturday evening, about 50 journalists and people concerned about the state of journalism today packed into the Upper Library at U of T’s Massey College and discussed these and other difficult questions. The event, Certifiable? A Debate Over Licensing Journalists, was an offshoot of a weekend-long investigative journalism workshop at Ryerson put on by Investigate Reporters and Editors. Many of those gathered at Massey College had just spent hours discussing journalistic principles and practices, but they certainly hadn’t run out of things to say.

The issue up for debate was the idea of licensing journalists, both in general and in the form that Quebec legislators are now considering. Following the recent phone-hacking scandal in the U.K. and the government-commissioned report by Dominique Payette that recommended creating a “professional journalist” status in Quebec, more people are asking whether a system that gives accreditation to journalists can “save” the profession.

Hosted and moderated by two investigative journalists, Rob Cribb and Julian Sher, the four-person panel represented both sides of the debate (though unequally, it turned out). Lise Millette, a Presse Canadienne journalist, was there to present the licensing system proposed by the Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec (FPJQ), an organization that represents more than 2,000 journalists in the province. She was, at the start and the end of the debate, the only panelist in favour of the idea, and over the next two hours she defended the FPJQ’s proposal against tough questions from the audience and from the other panelists: CBC executive editor Esther Enkin, American investigative reporter and lecturer on national security journalism Josh Meyer, and media lawyer Bert Bruser.

The details of the FPJQ’s plan aren’t totally pinned down, but essentially it wants to be the body in charge of giving journalists in Quebec a professional status. Those who qualify would have to sign onto a Code of Ethics that the FPJQ is developing with the help of the Quebec Press Council. The FPJQ hopes that committing themselves to these principles will give journalists ammunition to fight back when their bosses ask them to do something they consider un-journalistic. Millette says that due to media concentration in Quebec (Quebecor, for example, reaches 87 per cent of the province’s residents) and increasing financial pressures on smaller publications there, something needs to be done to protect journalists in their jobs and to ensure the public is getting quality news. [Read how FPJQ secretary-general Claude Robillard described the proposal here.]

A long list of issues emerged as the panelists and their audience tried to wrap their heads around what FPJQ is proposing and what they hope to accomplish. For the sake of brevity, here are some of the panelists’ and audience members’ arguments for and against the idea:

In favour of licensing journalists:

Against licensing journalists:

At the end of the event, an informal poll revealed that very few in the room were in favour of the idea, more were against it, but the majority were unsure (the crowd also eventually bullied Sher—who attempted to uphold his neutrality as moderator—into admitting he was against the idea). The hows and ifs of the proposal are still too many. So while licensing journalists to protect them and their profession sounds nice, it seems the complexity of implementing the idea makes it a non-starter for many.

What do you think of the idea of licensing journalists? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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