Every time I have to be a little aggressive when interviewing someone for a story, a nagging voice at the back of my head tells me, “You have no right to be questioning this person, let alone to be so aggressive.”
Just a few months into my first job, one question began to pester me more than anything else: who gave journalists the right to demand information?
Journalists are not like the police, who are sanctioned by the state to protect the citizens, but they’re not ordinary citizens either, because they are involved in a great deal of ‘protecting’. Theoretically, the protection that journalists provide is by diffusing information as widely as possible to allow citizens to make informed decisions. So the journalist does have a protective role in society. But who sanctions this duty, and what’s stopping society from being dismissive of journalists authority?
Power seems to be embedded in the very concept of journalism. Publish material about individuals and organisations on a platform that has sufficient reach (newspaper/magazine/website), and you will automatically give yourself authority. Society gives the journalist the right to question them because they also want to give the journalist the right to publish positive things about them.
But this authority and right to demand information by a journalist is supposed to be balanced by his/her accountability to the law and to the people they serve. But as was revealed by the Leveson Inquiry in response to the News of the World hacking scandal in 2011 – the newspaper was found to have hacked the phones of 4,000 people including murdered school girl, Milly Dowler – journalists often misuse their right to information and take their duty to protect too far.
The problem is that it is journalists who have conferred upon themselves, both, the duty to serve and the right to question. The citizens do not appoint journalists to do this work, as they do to create a government which then serves them.