Is Interviewing a Right or a Privilege?


This question came up during a panel at the Wheeler Centre a few years ago and I messed up!  Enthusiastically, and thinking of my own style of biographical interview, I exclaimed, Yes! it is a privilege to interview people.

Then up spoke fellow panellist investigate journalist, Gold Walkley winner and Monash University Professor Phil Chubb (who sadly died last year). Without glancing at me he replied that interviewing was a right and part of the process of accountability that we undertake as journalists.

“I think we have a right to ask questions of people who set themselves up as public figures. We have a right to anticipate that they’ll give us answers which are truthful,” he said.

I felt foolish and small as I listened to him wax passionately about the valuable programs he’d made (ie Labor in Power) and the politicians and kingmakers he’d held to account.  I realised that our interviews were the polar opposite.  Thankfully the third panellist, Ramona Koval weighed in.

“I think when you’re interviewing public figures it’s a right. It’s a privilege when you’re interviewing people who aren’t necessarily public figures, people whose lives have come to public attention…they just might be opening their hearts and minds and lives to you. That is a privilege, I think.”

I’ve been thinking about the right/privilege question since Sarah Ferguson’s recent Steve Bannon interview.   I didn’t find the interview particularly satisfying (I don’t imagine it was much fun either), but Bannon is absolutely newsworthy and there’s no question that 4C’s should have pursued and put to air that interview.

We need hard-hitting investigative interviews; those which hold individuals to account (when they choose to be interviewed).  And, according to Ramona Koval:

There are a whole range of interviews which make us ponder what’s meaningful in life and how people navigate fortune or misfortune or hold a light to the shadows.

Unearthing gems like this is certainly a privilege.  But next time, I’ll opt to go last on the panel :)