Sunday, 21 August 2011

The human nature of journalists

by Minh Duc Luong

There were two incidents that have had strong influences on the media world: the WikiLeaks publishing the US top secret documents last year and the Murdoch phone hacking scandal this year. From an observational angle, it could be argued that the subsequent developments of these occurrences were arguments over the power of journalists. It is also argued that the behaviour of Assange and Murdoch's journalists in these incidents resulted from the process of subjective self awareness of power which could not be anticipated by dominant and ethical institutions in society. This understanding refers to some ideas of Foucault, and realism philosophers of human nature. This paper thus approaches the journalist, as the subject of journalism, from the realistic perspective of human nature, typified by Machiavelli, and Foucault's theory of the nature of power, in an attempt to identify the nature of the journalist in social structures. In the latter part, this assignment applies theoretical understanding to explain the Murdoch and WikiLeaks incidents as a practical approach to the human nature of journalists.

The human nature of journalists under theoretical frameworks

The senior journalists of News of the World probably knew the fundamental principles of journalism, of which the first obligation is to the truth (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2001). They would be aware of the possible consequences of distorting the truth. However, the code of ethics was still broken and what is the motive for such behaviour, if not the process of self awareness in the frame of practicing power?

Realism philosophers consider human nature as a sign of evil. From the 5th century BC, Thucydides disclosed such wickedness by stating that "the cause of all these evils was the lust for power arising from greed and ambition; and from these passions proceeded the violence of parties once engaged in contention"(Thucydides, 1968, p. 171). With the same view, Machiavelli denied the ideal of ethics or power of justice. Rather, he asserts that all people are bad, and that they will always act with wickedness whenever they have freedom (Machiavelli, 1996). The concept 'evil' or 'wickedness' should not be confused with the meaning of doing something wrong or right. Instead, it is the 'Devil' who presents mankind with the desire to exercise power. 

This point meets an important argument about the watchdog principle in journalism. Considering "watchdog" as the ultimate defense of liberty, Kovach and Rosenstiel argue that the role requires a special temperament, a special hunger, and a desire to cover serious concerns (2001). However, the question is to some what the limitation of such desires meets the principles. Murray Marder, analysing "The Elements of Journalism" of Kovach and Rosenstiel, notes that overusing the watchdog principle could result in serious consequences, such as summoning public opinion to act against any other group in the society (2001). Machiavelli writes the rule of law and punishment is the foundation of the citizens' liberty and are tools to dominate and keep all the components in society running well. The best government would secure the rule of law and the common good (Viroli, 1998). By extension, the government could use its laws as a method to resist the risks of journalism in exercising its freedom. However, by heightening the power of the ruler, Machiavelli's theory would not take the human nature of the ruler into account. In other words, he does not attribute the nature of evil to rulers. He probably supports a "single absolute power" in society which must be taken by the ruler or by the government. In a way, Machiavelli is hoist with his own petard" and his standpoint could lead to despotism and violence to the principles of free speech.

Foucault (1998), on the contrary, argues that there is no absolute power. Power is productive and comes from everywhere, flowing through interactions and relationships. It is not an institution, and not a structure. Power, according to Foucault (cited in Hobbs, 2008), is knowledge and is produced within discourse[1], not by the subject. Hobbs also clarifies that 'the journalist', like 'the subject', is created by discourse and operates within conceptual parameters of discourse (2008). This means that power is the product of self awareness and discursive practices. As a result, it is not simply defined and controlled by any external force, especially the dominant force.

More importantly, Foucault notes that resistance is inseparable from power given the existence of power relations, or "where there is power, there is resistance" (Foucault, 1998, p. 95). He, to some extent, shares the view with realists about the dangers of untamed power; and that governing discourse in a variety ways could be used to exorcise Demons[2]. 

" imposing rules of logic and grammar; by censoring certain words and topics; by stipulating the kinds of research and propositions acceptable within a discipline..." (Foucault, cited in Miller, 1993, p. 184)

However, moving beyond the persona and dominant power of 'the Prince' of Machiavelli, Foucault clarifies the dialectical contradiction between power and resistance in every component of society (1998). By extension, from the individual level of the journalist, there is no absolute power for him or her due to the resistance within power itself. By telling the story - a process of discourse - journalists have to face the contradiction between the desire for truth and various personal ethical matters: what they should do, when they should say what, to whom and for what purpose. There would be also contradictions between journalistic freedom and external matters of responsibility, credibility, competition, law and even punishment. Therefore, examining the power of journalists should be within the framework of the discourse of journalists and its correlation with other subjects in society.

Murdoch vs. WikiLeaks

The two Australian media men, Murdoch and Julian Assange would probably share the common matter of using power, although their "scandals" were very different.

Before having 'betrayed' the faith of public opinion by distorting the truth, Murdoch Empire had its power over its audience through tabloid discourse. Emmanuel Tchividjian, Ethics officer of Ruder Finn, states in his blog that Murdoch's tabloids are "based on the people's interest in trivia, gossip and sensationalism" and such tabloids are very popular across the world. This is demonstrated by News of the World having a circulation of 2.6 million before its close (2011, 25 July). His audience is the genesis of Murdoch's power and it logically made it possible for him to strengthen his political power, as politicians needed him to influence public opinion (Ali Moore, 2011). The audience is, nevertheless, the origin of resistance that could result in Murdoch losing his power, even his political power. They may reject his journalists' unethical behaviour, brought to light by the recent scandal.

Interestingly, while Murdoch is considered as one of the most powerful media personality in the world, Julian Assange is called "the most dangerous man for challenging governments" (Daniel Ellsberg, quoted in Star & Keller, 2011) and "threatening national security" (Hilary Clinton, quoted in Moore, 2010). It could be argued that WikiLeaks publishing confidential documents of the US Government demonstrates its power, which is presented from the discourse about free speech:

"WikiLeaks has sustained and triumphed against legal and political attacks designed to silence our publishing organisation, our journalists and our anonymous sources. The broader principles on which our work is based are the defence of freedom of speech and media publishing..." (WikiLeaks)

Julian Assange has selected national 'top secrets' to practice his power and as a result, he became an object for the governments to restrain. Following the US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton's response, specific actions were taken to enhance news security safeguards and protect information so that this kind of leak could not happen again (Moore, 2010). If this occurs, Assange's discourse could not come into effect and he loses his power.

This assignment does not attempt to judge the behaviour of either Murdoch or WikiLeaks. From the perspective of the practice of power mentioned above, it could be argued that the power discourse in these two cases does not reflect or demonstrate the whole concept of journalistic power. Their powers could be only defined from particular objects within specific relationships. While the interactive object of Murdoch is tabloid values and political support, that of WikiLeaks is the power of secret high-ranking information and the desire for press freedom. And in such relationships, power is not absolute, but exists along with resistance.

Power balance

The case studies of Murdoch and WikiLeaks demonstrate the necessary existence of laws and ethical principles in journalism. Since the journalist is human being, and human being is evil (Machiavelli, 1996), they may behave unethically with the desire for 'truth'. Regulations would thus guarantee the possible punishment and ensure the rights of others in the relationship with journalists, in other words, to warn the journalist not going too far. However, principles are again not an assurance of ethical behaviour.

This understanding thus leads to a hypothesis of a relative balance of power within a society, where each subject acts based on measuring his or her correlation with the others. This would be important for journalists to make their own ethical decisions. They would think twice before deciding what they will or will not do. They need to be aware of their own responsibility to others since the principles or law could judge and deal with the consequences of their behaviour.


In conclusion, with the theory of realism, it is clarified that the human nature of journalists, as any subject in social structure, is desire and ambition which is the germ of various contradictions and clashes with other subjects. With Foucault's concept of power, there is no full definition of journalistic power, as its subject - the journalist - need to be examined in the correlation with other subjects in society. More importantly, the concepts of 'journalist', 'freedom' and 'power' are produced by discourse. As a result, on the one hand there is no absolute freedom for journalists, or laws and codes of ethics to adjust journalists' behaviour; on the other hand, power is inseparable from resistance. Being aware of the balance between power and resistance would make it possible for journalists to make their decisions.


[1] "[A] group statements which provide a language for talking about - a way of representing the knowledge. ...Discourse is about the production of knowledge through language" (Foucault, cited in Hall, 1997, p. 44).
[2] For this point, Foucault shares the view with realism that there is no "ideal social model". He stressed this opinion in the debate with the American linguist Noam Chomsky in a show of Dutch Television in November 1971 (Chomsky, 1971). Video on YouTube

No comments:

Post a Comment