We are used to telling ourselves by now that journalism is a manifestation of a human right — that of free expression. Smartphones, cheap recording equipment, and free access to social media and blogging platforms have revolutionised journalism; the means of production have fallen into the hands of the many.
This is a good thing. The more information we have on events, surely the better. But one question does arise: if we are all journalists now, what happens to the privileges journalists used to claim?
Official press identification in the UK states that the holder is recognised by police as a “bona fide newsgatherer”. As statements of status go, it seems a paltry thing. But it does imply that some exception must be made for the bearer. The recognised journalist, it is suggested, should be free to roam a scene unmolested. One can ask questions and reasonably expect an answer. One can wield a video or audio device and not have it confiscated. One can talk to whoever one wants, without fear of recrimination.
That, at least, is the theory. But in Britain, the US and elsewhere, the practice has been changing. Whether during periods of unrest or after, police have shown a disregard for the integrity of journalists’ work. The actions of police in Ferguson have merely been part of a pattern.