Saturday, February 25, 2012

On The Motivations of the Guilds of Craftsmen

When people in the same business are apart they are plotting against each other. When they get together they are plotting against the rest of us. There are plenty of professions where entry needs to be controlled to some extent. You wouldn’t want just anyone putting a sign on his door and calling himself a doctor. The business of finding out whether he had actually learned anything other than a flick through Gray’s online and what he remembered from ‘playing’ with his cousin in the airing cupboard years ago is likely to be quite exhilarating, but possibly rather short. No, we really want to know that when we go to a medical practitioner he has been weighed in the balance by an expert group of his peers who would have liked nothing better than to keep him out of their club, but couldn’t find a reason to do so.

We can add a number of other professions in which it is essential that a certain expertise be demonstrated before one is allowed to practice. Some where it might be considered useful or helpful to the customer. These might include many of the artisans’ guilds. After all, the mechanical quality of a mediaeval clock cannot easily be judged by a layman. But then there are many professions and trades in which the customer requires no such protection, and the only reason practitioners have for restricting entry is to protect themselves.

The first group that comes to mind are journalists. They have created for themselves a complex mythology, the illusion that they are special, a cut above the rest of us, and so entitled to cheat and lie and act abominably in circumstances where mere mortals would be criticised and punished. At times we seem to take them at their own evaluation. A bad idea, as well as a wrong one.

They have always been attempts to decide who could and could not be employed as a journalist, to limit the numbers who were called journalists as opposed to commentators or whatever, and the powerful groups were keen to keep certain people out, but in Britain at least it doesn’t seem to have been particularly successful, perhaps because it wasn’t easy to define criteria which weren’t transparently interpretable as ‘so-and-so’s son’, and ‘his uncle handles the free tickets for Wimbledon’. But it has never stopped them trying. In Spain you can do a degree in journalism. There doesn’t seem to be any real point, not in terms of what you learn, but it’s still the best way to get into the club.

The Internet will soon kill print journalism and the legal and practical limits on the number of news outlets have ceased to exist. Anyone can do news reporting now, all that is needed is something to report on, something to say about it, and some idea of how to communicate. We will see a huge number of major news gathering organizations come to prominence in the next few years, some of them with familiar names, and many will disappear again quickly. There will be turnover as there is in music and fashion, but it won’t just be yesterday’s edition wrapping the chips, it’ll be yesterday’s journalists.

There is clearly no need for the law, or the union, to establish criteria for whom a news outlet may choose to employ. Someone looking to hire a writer will have available all the information they require to make that choice. Insisting that they can’t employ someone who doesn’t have the right degree, or the right experience, or the approval of the Head Boy and Girl, serves no one but those who already have power within the trade. It doesn’t help the paper or the reader in any way. It’s not only the unions who like the idea of deciding who is and who is not a journalist. Governments would love to licence journalists, privileging the tame ones and making life difficult for the outsiders.

The same is true of acting and music. I have an actress friend who often complains about ‘intrusismo’, which I don’t know the English word for, but what she means is that, despite having gone to drama school, she loses out on TV roles to people who have little formal training, but are younger and better looking than she is (I should say, even though she is unlikely to read this, that she is in fact young and attractive, but so are a lot of other aspiring actresses). What she fails to appreciate is that the laws and customs which prevent just anyone from calling himself a doctor or an architect or whatever, are there to protect the customer, not the worker. In stage and TV the customer is the producer/director, and ultimately the viewer, all of whom are interested only in the actual performance the performer is capable of giving, don’t need to be told how by a piece of paper, because they can see for themselves.

There is a movement among musicians here for some kind of licence. You can’t charge for a performance unless you’ve got a diploma from an official music school or some such nutty idea. That one will never see the light of day, but it’s difficult to explain to them that you earn the right to be paid by playing something that someone actually wants to hear, and playing it well.

Another angle on this is offered by my physiotherapist, properly trained and competent to do all kinds of things, including treating muscle and bone injuries, some of it with machines, that you wouldn’t want an incompetent playing around with. He complains about ‘intrusismo’, and in this case he’s right to do so, as there are loads of people who’ve learnt to do a basic massage and then call themselves physiotherapists, wasting people’s money and sometimes doing them harm. But my physio also complains about all the rules, on equipment, training of staff, inspections etc, that the association makes him follow. He doesn’t quite grasp that it’s all part of the same thing. You keep out the incompetent (in this case legitimately, I feel) by demanding high standards of the competent.

It’s all rent-seeking of one kind or another, and it’s part of being human. But it pays to be aware of it, and of what’s behind it.


James Higham said...

The Internet will soon kill print journalism and the legal and practical limits on the number of news outlets have ceased to exist.

Yes but it's journalism in its own right. Maybe the new journalism.

CIngram said...

Oh certainly. And I consider it a good thing. The quantity and variety of news available is orders of magnitude greater than a few years ago, and nearly all the barriers to entry have fallen. Anyone who wants to, who works hard and is good at it can do journalism, and they don't need permission from the government, the unions, or the big media groups.