Inaugural lecture: Diminishment and Resistance - The civil and anti-civil power of news and news journalism

Professor Jackie Harrison gave her inaugural lecture as UNESCO Chair on Media Freedom, Journalism Safety and the Issue of Impunity at the University of Sheffield on 7th November. The inaugural lecture was titled Diminishment and Resistance and sought to address the civil and anti-civil power of news and news journalism.

Inaugural Lecture by the UNESCO Chair on Media Freedom, Journalism Safety and the Issue of Impunity

Jackie Harrison, University of Sheffield: on 7th November 2018

1. Introduction

Today threat and hazard to free and independent news and news journalism occupies an elaborate spectrum. It spans political and religious oppression and repression, state revenge for the exposure of abuses of power, retaliation from vested interests for revealing the extent of state or financial corruption, legally inspired pre-publication forms of censorship to prevent human rights abuses or calls for political and civil reform being brought to public attention.

This spectrum of threat and hazard can be seen as representing a scale. At one end is lethal violence – in the past twelve years (2006-2018) close to 1010 journalists have been killed, with most murderers going unpunished. Along the spectrum there is non-lethal violence which covers a range of attacks from arbitrary detention, kidnapping and other physical attacks, psychological intimidation and harassment (often online) in the forms of death threats to journalists and their families, accusations of treason, treachery, lack of patriotism, elitism (‘ignoring’ the popular/people’s will) through to a persistent attack on journalism itself through debilitating generalised charges of ‘fake news’ and an undermining of the value of public service journalism. In its entirety the whole spectrum of threat and hazard represents the civil diminishment of the news and news journalism and accordingly the civil sphere itself. Opposing the forces of civil diminishment is the capacity for news and news journalism to offer forms of civil resistance to those predatory forces that seek to restrict free and independent reporting. In this way news and news journalism occupy a constantly contested civil space. What is at stake in this space is what form of civil power the news is free to exercise, more precisely it is about the extent to which news journalism is free to report our basic and invariant civil concerns of how we see ourselves and who we regard as like us (matters of identity), of what we regard as acceptable and tolerable and what we do not (matters of legitimacy) and of what we perceive to threaten our world and from what we seek to protect ourselves (matters of risk). These three invariant civil concerns of identity, legitimacy and risk can be reported in either a closed way through the assertion of uncontested anti-civil judgements (they are not like us, they are intolerable, they are a threat to us) or they can in an open way form the basis of civil disagreement and discussion. The former is a diminished civil space, the latter a space of resistance to endless predatory powers of diminishment and can be represented accordingly:


2. The primary features of the spaces of civil diminishment of news and news journalism

The task at hand is to understand the features of the spaces of civil diminishment and of civil resistance of news and news journalism. The focus is on two forms of predatory power – the market and the state – to show how they seek to diminish news and news journalism and how they can be and are resisted.

The spaces of the civil diminishment of the news and news journalism can be of two kinds i) sites of strong forces of oppression and repression and ii) sites of weak forces of antagonism.


a) The primary features of oppressed and repressed news and news journalism
Spaces of civil diminishment as sites of oppression and repression usually exist where there is no recognisable separation of powers to protect news and news journalism (the law serves only to promote and protect a particular political programme) and as such any appeals to constitutionally prescribed rights (such as freedom of expression or media freedom) are typically fruitless. The non-civil sphere of the state is often in control of news and news journalism where it is valued as an agent of state-sponsored information. Frequently and alongside this, it is also required to acquiesce to, or tolerate the operations and practices of other strongly vested interest groups such as mafia, gangsters, drug cartels and corrupt businesses. The combined effect is a toxic atmosphere for news and news journalism which curtails journalists’ ability to scrutinise state (or state sponsored or state sanctioned) power. The net effect is that news journalists are expected to undertake and perform a certain institutional role which is supportive and therefore not critical of the state (and by extension state supported market activities). The expectation placed upon news and news journalism is one of compliance and conformity to an imposed political and editorial policy that typically requires self-censorship and to ‘know’ what not to report. Where there are those few news journalists brave enough to resist the strong forces of state oppression, they are cast as the enemy or ‘hostis’, are criminalised or repressed by being victimised and exiled into ‘spaces of exception’ (Harrison and Pukallus 2018). This allows the State to turn journalists into detainees; that is to be incarcerated without due process and to be dealt with through violence or intimidation with impunity. High levels of impunity for crimes against journalists are also a warning to other journalists that their dissent will not be tolerated. The result is an extremely hostile environment for journalists. Above all news and news journalism must be patriotic. It must emphasise the worth of sacrifice, loyalty and conformity to the state and not to civil association. These normative claims are then expected to be engrained in the way the news and news journalism reports events and editorialises comment and are meant to provide succor to whatever the particular state regime prioritises, ‘supports’ or tolerates. The news and news journalism must serve the oppressors. It is not there to address or provide social criticism or civil deliberation. Where strong commercial interests or monopolies prevail in oppressed media environments news and journalism will also be strongly orientated to serving its audience as consumers, prioritising advertising revenue and sales or clicks, avoiding news that would be antagonistic to state or commercial funders. Pockets of civil resistance that arise are repressed.

b) The primary features of antagonism towards news and news journalism
In the space of civil diminishment which exhibits the weaker forces of antagonism against free and independent news and news journalism, it is more often the market-based desire to generate wealth through the creation of ultra-loyal audiences and/or secure the widest most extensive reach to suit audiences of all tastes that leads to the diminishment of news and news journalism. The effect of this is two-fold: First, news organisations are increasingly required to create for themselves an audience of partisans which seeks to have its views endlessly confirmed and which simultaneously forms the basis of any attempt to achieve political advantage and reliable commercial revenue streams. Second, news organisations justify their promulgation of extreme views via claims to libertarian principles – usually extreme versions of freedom of expression and/or commercial liberalism. Both of these are used to protect the relentless pursuit of a maximum audience – an audience which is to be tolerated irrespective of its tastes. The first caters for a narrow-minded and prejudiced audience, the second caters for a public of unrestrained consumers. In either case editorial integrity is lacking; in the first case because it would impede and interfere with the partisans’ intensely ideological convictions, and in the second case because it would infringe upon commercial freedoms of some market-based kind where all tastes and opinions carry equal weight. In this antagonistic setting market forces constantly attack the civil ideal of news as a public service. They do so on an axis that at one extreme says that public service news journalism is nothing other than news according to the precepts of dominant elites, pluralists, and liberal democrats, and at the other extreme that all views and forms of news no matter how harmful are protected by freedom of expression and covered by existing constitutional or legal provisions.

An antagonistic setting for news and news journalism is a hothouse environment for the unravelling of civil and public discourse, where partisan news and news journalism flourishes, where commercialism is the only acceptable rationale for the provision of a news service, where journalism is directly tied to advertising and/or sponsorship, where there is no consensus on what constitutes the public interest and where facts are denied. In fact, it is a setting where the blurring of the lines between fact, opinion, entertainment and information becomes normal and where the competition for news is one of bitter commercial rivalry. This is not to deny that the news has long been a commodity to be packaged and sold, but in contemporary settings dominated by social media, ‘news journalism is caught up in and being bounced around businesses which make their money by selling its users’ attention to advertisers’ (Katutani 2018: 259). Antagonistic news journalism favours attention grabbing stories and emotional engagement. It deals in binaries of good/evil and black and white and can as we are seeing all too easily feed off public disenchantment and feelings of disempowerment. News that deals with shades of grey and is aimed at engaging citizens is discredited and diminished or even labelled ‘fake’. When news and news journalism are attacked and diminished in antagonistic settings it becomes easier to use and even weaponise the news media to set off and amplify culture wars, create greater divisions in society, exploit the fears and prejudices of its partisan consumerist audiences, shame and diminish expert knowledge and create a communicative environment in which there is a reduction in the opportunities to discuss and reach consensus. Groups, or ‘tribes’ as they are sometimes now referred to, simply attack from their silos.

3. The primary features of the spaces of civil resistance by news and news journalism
Civil resistance occurs when news journalism confronts either the strong forces of anti-civil oppression and repression or the weak forces of anti-civil antagonism. The two are very different. While the former is more widespread, the second is becoming more common. When confronted with the strong forces of state oppression and repression, civil resistance takes on an entirely different hue from that of when it confronts the weak forces of anti-civil sentiments, and this can be understood accordingly.

Assuming the strong forces of civil diminishment have not completely destroyed a free and independent news journalism, such news journalism that is capable of resistance that survives is committed to public service and civil responsibility. Its survival can and does take various forms: Samizdat news, news from exile and news undertaken bravely in chilling and extremely aggressive settings. Such resistance that occurs across the spectrum of oppressed/repressed settings seeks to hold power holders to account, establish or re-establish certain rights and to promote freer forms of civil life. The nature of the civil resistance undertaken by news journalists under oppressive and repressive state and market power is per force of necessity fragmented. However, it is known about and organised (to some extent) by global support networks, international aid agencies, internal legal bodies and NGOs, all of whom advocate for a free and independent press. In these cases, civil resistance is universalised and defines the oppression and repression of the free press in absolute and condemnatory terms. In some cases, civil resistance works and state power is held accountable – sadly in many cases it is not.

When faced with the weak forces of anti-civil interests the civil resistance of the news takes the form of enabling the building of civil capacity and solidarity. It is a platform of civil opposition to anti-civil forces and non-civil pressures from the state and the market which are outside of the civil sphere. Such resistance occurs whenever news journalism has integrity, is independent, truthful, fair and comprehensive. News journalism that adopts these values may also become more publicly valued because it garners trust which in turn may also go some way to protect journalists around the world from harassment from those who try to undermine their investigative efforts, since if something can be proved to be rigorously investigated and fair and balanced, then it can be harder to refute and rejected by vested interests.

Within the weak forces of civil diminishment by state and market power the civil institutions of news journalism need to transform the kind of news that accompanies partisanship and the kind of philosophical posturing that ineffectively accompanies consumerism. Resisting hostility towards precepts of accurate and sincere news journalism and a public service ethos in news reports entails a willingness to transform the partisan and the consumer into someone who has the capacity to also be a civil interlocutor. This requires a move from an antagonistic space into an agonistic one. The difference between antagonism and agonism is that antagonism rests on a friend/enemy distinction and antagonistic relationships display nothing other than endless hostility and enmity. Agonism is the relationship between adversaries, but crucially is based on respectful contestation and, in that sense, is rule governed. Civil resistance via news and news journalism attempts to and ideally succeeds in transforming an antagonistic discursive setting into an agonistic one where adversarial public discussion is undertaken in a civil and public-spirited manner. This is why it can be viewed as a model for post-conflict settings and situations where forgiveness or the willingness to engage with others’ histories, views and values is at issue.

The role of the news journalist undertaking civil resistance rests on the view that political and commercial ideologies that seek to reconfigure the civil basis of the institution of news should and can be challenged at every available opportunity. It is in the nature of this resistance that the role of news journalism understands itself to be primarily serving a citizenry and not only consumers or partisans. In this way, whether employed by a publicly owned or privately owned news provider, news and news journalism is understood and undertaken in a way that orientates toward the building of civil capacity and solidarity, serving as a platform of civil opposition to anti-civil forces and non-civil pressures from the market and the state. Above all it is about ensuring that partisan claims are scrutinised and challenged. Importantly, an agonistic institutional setting also creates and nurtures a discursive space for the expression of dissent and general concern, irony, satire, humour, sincerity and expressions of creativity and is open and hospitable.

4. The civil and anti-civil power of the news and news journalism

The spaces of civil diminishment and civil resistance which produce sites of oppression/repression, antagonism and agonism are of course just analytical categories that allow us to envisage three different institutional settings of news and news journalism. In reality news journalism as it is practised in different national settings can fall into more than one site, as can the news that is produced. Agonistic news and news journalism may hold antagonistic news and news journalism to account and challenge ideologies that seek to reconfigure it or to diminish its civil standing. They may also seek to and succeed in engendering trust in particular news organisations. It is, however, all too easy for the agonistic setting for news journalism to transform into an antagonistic one that is not governed by rules of civility, one where attack journalism is used to achieve loyal audiences and generate revenue and where partisan claims are no longer scrutinised. News and news journalism may become weaponised and journalism aimed at citizens is accused of fakery or bias.

The diagram above represents the fluid conditions within which news and news journalism and its journalists exist. It illustrates how even those countries deemed to be free or partly free on the world press freedom indices still have journalism that is in a state of civil diminishment. In these different national contexts it is important to look at news and news journalism in an holistic way in order to understand the strengths and fragilities of the whole news environment. This requires a more nuanced understanding of the civil diminishment of news and of where and how civil resistance exists in order to enable us to adopt a different narrative in discussions about media freedom, journalism safety and the issue of impunity. Although many studies do drill down into news media ecologies, the discussions tend mainly to focus on concepts such as democracy, public spheres and freedom of expression – all useful in their own way, but also somewhat inadequate to reflect the fluidity of journalists’ lived reality as it exists from place to place and changes over time. Neither do such concepts completely capture the fragility of news and news journalism and its civil power in these three settings, where the civil power of the news resides in its ability to engage with public sentiment, and where both news and public sentiment may so easily become anti-civil in tone and focus and are so easily diminished by a range of forces.

What is in danger is the communicative character of the civil sphere itself and following that the coarsening, or in extremis the suspension, of the role of public sentiment in democracy itself. How the problem is dealt with is influenced by the civil power of the news which at its best highlights inequality, injustice, corruption and recognises that when a ‘public’ expresses itself it does so reasonably/unreasonably and calmly/ passionately, but that it should have a voice. Crucially the tone and content of that voice derives from the institutional setting of news and news journalism, whether it is oppressed/repressed, antagonistic or agonistic. These institutional settings also determine the ways in which the news reports and frames our invariant civil concerns of identity, legitimacy and risk. More precisely, they determine how these three invariant civil concerns are assembled and understood in the form of civil and anti-civil judgements and, importantly for the character of the civil sphere itself, how these judgements contribute to the boundaries we place and maintain around civil society with regard to whom and what we regard as civil and anti-civil.

Harrison, J. and Pukallus, S. (2018) The Politics of Impunity: A study of journalists’ experiential accounts of impunity in Bulgaria, Democratic Republic of Congo, India, Mexico and Pakistan, Journalism. DOI: 10.1177/1464884918778248, pp/1-17.
Kakutani, M. (2018) The Death of Truth. London: WilliamCollinsBooks.