by Horst Pöttker
Abstract: Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) not only wrote the novel Robinson Crusoe, one of the most circulated book in world history, but he also edited and authored England’s first political magazine, The Review, which appeared three times a week from 1704 to 1713. In addition to covering the war in France at that time, Defoe also wrote for The Review what can be called “theoretical articles” that reveal his self-understanding and professional ethos as a journalist. This paper deals with some of these articles as well as with Defoe’s ideas concerning the public, the public sphere, public opinion, public discourse, public life, publicness, publicity (all expressing various aspects of the German word Öffentlichkeit), press freedom and its legitimate limits.
In discussions about the tasks of and dangers to journalism, no other term is more often used than the noun public. No term, however, is also more ambiguous. This becomes evident, for example, in translations of texts dealing with the topic of communication. For the German term Öffentlichkeit, there are a number of English equivalents such as public, public sphere, public opinion, public discourse, public life, publicness or publicity. The most appropriate word for the translation can only be suitably chosen if all connotations of the context are carefully observed. Normally, it will not be enough if the translator simply uses the same word in all circumstances. This indicates that the term Öffentlichkeit has different meanings in the original German language.
What does the term “public” (German: “Öffentlichkeit”) mean?
To a great extent, the confusion derives from Jürgen Habermas’s famous book Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit (Habermas 1971), in English translation The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (Habermas 1989), which was first published in the early 1960s. As the title suggests, Habermas’s investigation is based on a historical conception. It begins in the eighteenth century and reconstructs the decline of “the” public sphere since the Enlightenment. Since nothing positive can result from a process of a decline, Habermas’s work has contributed to the tendency today to regard publicness as something problematic and even dangerous. This imputation becomes most evident in the title of a 1979 book by Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann entitled Öffentlichkeit als Bedrohung [Publicity as a Threat] (Noelle-Neumann 1979). As only something substantial can alter its structure, many people adopted the idea that “the” public sphere must be viewed as a substance or concrete thing. This interpretation, however, is a prerequisite for the frequently repeated argument that it is no longer possible to speak of only one public sphere and that, instead, a differentiation into numerous partial public spheres is unavoidable.
One should, however, become skeptical when one attempts to trace the history of the German word. For a long time, only the adjective öffentlich (public) was used. Until the mid-twentieth century, use of the noun Öffentlichkeit (public) referred only to the sense of the older word Publizität (publicity). In the long run, the imputation that public discourse is a dangerous substance or construct, i.e. a kind of monster, must necessarily throw an unfavorable light on those who produce public discourse—first and foremost, the journalists. In order to criticize this approach, I will refer to an author who not only enjoys the highest circulation in world literature, but who had also already developed a sense of self-esteem for being a journalist from the very beginning of the Enlightenment.
Daniel Defoe: A pioneer of journalistic mentality
Many of us have known Daniel Defoe since childhood as the author of Robinson Crusoe. Far less well known is the fact that this world-famous author had been a political publicist for many years before he published his first novel, which entered the canon of obligatory knowledge, at age 60.
Before turning to fiction, Defoe had already produced controversial, ironic writings such as The Trueborn Englishman (1701) and The Shortest Way with Dissenters (1702) that commented on topics of the day such as xenophobic tendencies (against King William III of Orange) or religious intolerance (by the Anglican Church). His outspokenness had landed him both in jail and on the pillory several times. While still in prison, Defoe founded the first political-moralistic weekly paper, The Review (1704)[i], which was then followed by Richard Steel’s Tatler (1709) and Jonathan Swift’s Examiner (1710).
Defoe’s four-page Review continued to appear until 1713—initially only once a week, but then three times a week for the rest of its existence. Originally conceived to report on the protracted Spanish War of Succession in which England and France were opponents, the weekly paper also dealt with various other topics in the years following its creation. “The contributions which Defoe wrote himself included, besides political subjects, questions of economy and society. The material living conditions of individual groups of the population, the professional and, resulting thereof, the social position, the economic activities of the whole nation and the role of the trade as the source of national prosperity were subjects Defoe dealt with.” (Kalb 1985: 22).
In Defoe’s world—England at the turn of the seventeenth to the eighteenth century—lies the origin of all that has characterized democratic capitalist societies down to the present, i.e. postulated and acknowledged human rights, parliamentary institutions, market regulation, free enterprise and independent media to name but a few. It is not surprising that this epoch also saw the genesis of a profession which is indispensable to the interaction of the functional elements of Western societies: journalism.
It should be borne in mind, however, that this “profession” does not only mean “the specification, specialization and combination of achievements which form for a person the basis of his continued maintenance or capacity of earning a living.” (Weber 1972: 8o) In contrast to such an individualistic and economic definition such as that of Max Weber, this profession also includes a variety of special competencies necessary for the optimal fulfillment of a task that is important for both the individual and society. Last but not least, such competencies comprise professional awareness and the skills that are necessary to accomplish the professional task. Defoe’s example demonstrates that such professional mentality had already developed its basic principles around 1700. As one of the first journalists, he publicly reflected on his profession and its requirements.
Defoe: On the use of the freedom of the press for society
As in several other texts by Defoe, this can specifically be seen in an article appearing in the March 29, 1711 issue of The Review. Here, Defoe outlines his opinion on the intended taxation of the press proposed by the last queen of the Stuart dynasty, Queen Anne, and the ruling Tories. The tax came into effect soon thereafter in the form of the so-called stamp tax.
The said article reads as follows:
He that will speak at all must speak quickly; and he that has but a little while to speak ought to speak to the purpose. This I observe not from the proposal in a printed paper only, but from a letter I have sent me, insulting me with what the Examiner gives a hint of, viz., laying a tax upon public prints and pamphlets. …
It will be a fair acknowledging that they cannot answer the arguments by reason and fair disputing; that demonstration is against them, that words cannot defend them, and they dare not bring their logics to the test with their enemies. …
It is fairly acknowledging that their practices, whether in politics or morals, will not bear the light; and that ‘tis their interest to prevent the secret histories of their persons or party being made public. …
A design to suppress printing on either side can be nothing but a design to suppress truth; since if falsity, scandal, slander, or anything that merits reprehension is published, the laws are already strong against them; and if in anything they are defective, the Parliament is sitting to add such new provisions as may seem necessary. But to lay a universal load upon everything, or, in English, to silence mankind, is a plot against truth, against the friends of virtue, learning, and religion, as might be made appear on many occasions.
To make such a thing general, without distinction of the subject, prevents all the attempts against vice, profaneness, and immortality; all the helps to instruction, education, and religion, and all the useful essays in learning, improvement, morality, commerce, religion, or other useful things which in small manuals have oftentimes had good effect upon the world, and may still. …
The attempt will not answer the design; for though it may suppress useful things, as above, and rob the world of the advantages from the labours of honest men …
(…) to lay a prohibition in general, without exception, is to suggest they have something to do they dare not let the people hear of; it is to padlock the mouths of the free people of Britain; it is to deprive men of their fair and just defense or vindication; and, which I think may merit a consideration by itself, it is to invade the properties, the livelihoods, and the employments of families and trades innumerable whose dependence and whose estates lie in several parts of the printed trade not at all concerned with the state or the government, and who in common justice must be made exceptions in such a general design. …
Among these are to be reckoned patents and properties in copies of smaller books such as almanacs, catechises, psalms, little manuals of many sorts, religious and moral, the copyright to which are estates to many families …
Meantime, that some restraint should be put to scandal, ribaldry, and reproach, to insulting governments, vilifying ministers of state, invading men’s reputation, and the like, by obliging every man to set his name to what he writes, making the proceedings in personal injury summary and decisive; …
Every honest man would be desirous of having such a law made, the sooner the better. All the rest savours of guilt, party interest, encroachment upon liberty, arbitrary imposition upon the people … (Payne 1951: 77-81)
Publicness as a necessary condition for the functioning of self-regulation
The common denominator of this text is its concept of publicness despite the fact that the author expressly mentions this only sporadically. Why does Defoe refrain from explicitly demonstrating this? By the beginning of the civic age, publicness was obviously already a vague, highly negative concept that could only be defined through the negation of its opposite.
Its constitutive component is the quality of openness. Publicness means the absence of barricades, blocks and barriers. The perception of every human being has access to what is meant by the term public. In German the term Öffentlichkeit is the noun derived from the adjectives öffentlich (public) and offen (open). Every attempt to construct positively a concept of the public sphere, for example in the form of a group of subjects actually participating in communication about certain topics or functioning as a kind of political institution (which is necessary for the function of state institutions), leads nolens volens to a loss in terms of the principle of unrestrictedness that is essential to the concept of publicness.
That Defoe had this negative concept of publicness in mind can be seen, for example, in his readiness to accept a certain amount of limitation of the freedom of the press regarding its political contents and intentions. Today one feels inclined to regard this as a kind of opportunistic behavior towards the ruling power as we have grown accustomed to the institutional restriction of press freedom since the civil-democratic revolutions in the United States and France that led to the advancement of the idea of public discourse to the rank of a constitutional principle. One can, however, also regard this as an expression of Defoe’s understanding of the necessary openness of social communication. He could do without certain political functions of the press because he had something greater in mind—namely, the rescue of the principle of publicness in a more comprehensive socio-cultural sense.
A careful observation speaks in favor of this interpretation. By refraining from a positive definition, one can find in Defoe a remarkable sensitivity for the usefulness, even necessity of publicness for society and each of its individuals. Publicness is necessary so that—to use Defoe’s own terms—scientific, moral and religious knowledge can spread. For this reason, publicness is an essential precondition for the individual to be able to shape her or his life on the level of cultural development. Moreover, publicness is necessary so that the individual can successfully withstand unjustified accusations and assaults. Publicness is therefore a human right, a fact often neglected in the complaint that the public sphere constitutes a threat to the private sphere.
Defoe’s observation that not only the harmful, but also the useful press was limited by the stamp tax also anticipates the simple truth that people in modern, parceled societies with a variety of media at their disposals can construct a more realistic picture of the world for themselves. These people are in a better position to cope with external problems than people who are obliged to rely on primary experiences without possible recourse to the media for their constructions of reality.
The benefit of publicness to the individual results in a benefit to society: Only if the individual members of a society defend their right to inviolability and self-determination and participate in the decision-making process of their whole social world can a modern society perceive its problems and solve them. We define this as the capacity for self-regulation.
Complex formations of society in which social communication is too strongly restricted by ideological, political and legal barriers remain unviable three centuries after Defoe’s general insight into the advantages of the principle of publicness. This became evident with the collapse of the socialist systems in Eastern Europe and the conservative-authoritative regimes in Latin America and South Africa near the end of the twentieth century.
Defoe’s idea of publicness becomes most impressive when he connects its use to the absence of general provisions regarding the press, be they political-ideological or (as in the case he fought against in 1711) economic in nature. The basic condition required by the media—so that they can fulfill their task of creating public discourse in the sense of preferably unrestricted social communication—consists of their general freedom to choose and investigate topics as they please and to use the various types of description at their disposal. This freedom is completed by the indispensable professional duty of journalists to publish. For (and we may add this after the epistemological debates since the Enlightenment) the decision about which subjects need publicness and which do not is in itself a problem of the openness of social communication. The definition and perception of the question of relevancy cannot be transferred to special institutions or persons (censors, watchdog groups, etc.)—since nobody can know in advance what he or she does not know yet—but must be left to public discourse, which requires in principle the absence of restrictions in the field of communication.
As Defoe was already aware, the freedom of the press is neither an optional cultural luxury, nor a professional privilege of journalists, but an element indispensable to the function of modern social structure. A society’s capacity to solve problems and its self-regulating capacity, i.e. its existence, depend on this freedom. Each form of ruling or external power that attempts to restrict the principle of the general freedom of journalistic work sooner or later harms society and ultimately itself. General restriction of the freedom of the media means general limitation of public discourse, and this general restriction amounts to an admission that the exclusion of certain conditions and practices could not be upheld in an open controversy, in an inter-subjective examination “by reason, argument, and matter of facts” (Payne 1951: 78), how Defoe it expresses.
An interesting side issue is Defoe’s observation that the stamp tax would deprive families working in the press sector of their economic existence. In contrast to Karl Marx 130 years later (cf. Pöttker 2001: 49), when the economic and professional roles of publishers and journalists had begun to separate due to the historical process of the division of labor and the differentiation of functions, Defoe, still publisher and journalist in one person, does not have an eye for the contradictions but for the similarities between freedom of the press and freedom of the trade. This appears far-sighted if one considers that a socially relevant public sphere has so far only been able to develop under the conditions of a market economy and capitalism but not in systems that are controlled from a centralized political and economic power. Although serious science cannot predict with certainty that this will remain the case, the experience of history tends to speak in favor of Defoe rather than Marx, a fact that has so far scarcely been noticed, let alone systematically verified by critical communication research.
After all, Defoe may perfectly represent the ideal of the literary journalist of the Enlightenment who separates information neither from opinion, nor self-publicity, nor even fiction, but takes advantage of these subjective ingredients so that the different components finally converge to become information.
Defoe’s fight against lies of the press
One year later, the stamp tax having meanwhile come into effect, Defoe wrote another article about problems of the press and published it in The Review on July 19, 1712. This article includes the following paragraphs:
I always thought it was the right of Englishmen to have liberty to speak freely in things relating to their general interest, only with this just restraint, viz., that they spoke truth, but I never thought that liberty extended to a general latitude of forging what stories they thought fit, and speaking by their own authority whatever they pleased, without respect to matters of fact. …
I speak this with a melancholy retrospect to the sin of the day, in which raising and publishing mere fictions, mere forgeries of our own, and spreading them out for news, to please or serve the parties we are concerned for, is grown so general a practice that indeed it is become the jest of the town, and ‘tis the common greeting now in a morning – Well, neighbour, what news?
Truly, says t’other, I am but just come, I don’t know, pray, what is the lie of the week? Or what is the lie courant for the day? What a wretched posture are we come to that we receive lies, knowing or believing them to be so, and please ourselves with them, to confront one another, and make good the scandal we deal in!
It would be too dirty a piece of work to rake in the general laystall of parties and expose the wretched particulars; how do our newswriters carry on the wicked war, and throw lies at one another every post, just as our boys throw dirt at one another in the street.
To come off of this we have a new invention, for what cannot our projectors for Hell do in that case? Viz., to dress up a formal story and call it “a letter from Holland”; the concern whether it be true or no is then no more upon us, it is a story left on the reputation of somebody abroad. This way we have every post a packet of such forged stuff, as well of one side as the other, that it is intolerable. I clear none of the parties of it; the crime is general.
And what’s the lie of the week now? Alas, this very week has been so fruitful of lies that it is hard to determine; but I think the lie of the greatest magnitude, the master lie that came over this post at the head of the swarm, may be allowed to be that of the Duke of Ormond’s army burning a church and burning 270 of the poor people, inhabitants of the village, alive in it, not suffering them to come out. Is this story likely to be true? Do Englishmen use to do thus? Is the Duke of Ormond of such a bloody, barbarous disposition? This I could not omit taking notice of. And what a day do we live in that such a piece of news will go down with us! …
I have sometime wondered at the folly of those people who are satisfied in lying if a printed lie will but hold one day, and though it be detected the next, they think it worth while to go through with it. But now I am convinced of the usefulness to them of this way of lying, though it be but for a few hours. How often has a formal lie come hot out of the oven into Exchange Alley, served the interest of the contrivers to the tune of 2 or 3 per cent in the price of stocks between nine o’clock and two? And though it has been cold again before night, nay, though it has been traced in those few hours, how have the managers made it answer all the ends of truth to them? Sold their stocks off at a good price, and stand and laugh at you into the bargain? Nay, make the advantage of the very detecting their own forgery, and make a second gain, by buying in cheap what before they sold out 2 or 3 cent dearer.
In politics it is the same. … (Payne 1951: 73-75)
Defoe’s consciousness of internal limitations of publicness
Despite his insisting on a negative, public-oriented understanding of the freedom of the media as freedom from restrictions and not as freedom for the publication of certain messages, Defoe leaves no doubt that this does not constitute an excuse for statements of every kind. The journalist whose professional task is to create public discourse through the general obligation to publish, needs no further reasons to conduct investigations and subsequently publish her or his findings in a form that interests the public. But it may happen that there are sufficient, even compelling reasons which force a journalist to refrain from publishing a certain fact in a certain form. A professional journalist is not in a position to answer the question why he or she actually reports on a certain subject, but the journalist must be able to explain why he or she refrains from publishing certain facts. Sufficient reasons for not publishing a fact may lie in the lack of journalistic qualities in the text or the fear of violating the general morality when such violations are considered intolerable even after careful reflection on the competing professional duties.
Defoe does not so much deal with the rivalry between professional duties and universal prohibitions on which today’s debates regarding the ethics of the media concentrate, but he reflects on the central professional quality of truth and the resulting requirements thereof. In a concrete case, there may arise from these requirements the necessity to refrain from using the freedom of the press, which is generally necessary for creating public discourse, if the topic is not in accordance with these requirements. If there is no quality of truth, the journalist is well entitled to refrain from publishing an event.
Three constituents of truth
Defoe explicitly mentions three constituents of truth in his texts of 1711 and 1712: Correctness (or accuracy), honesty (or truthfulness) and independence.
The element of correctness concerns the central question of whether or not the basic duty to publish should be obeyed. Defoe deals only sporadically with this problem in his writings against the stamp tax, laying much more emphasis on it in his polemics against the warmongers in the press. Already in the first paragraph he talks of the necessary “respect to matters of fact.” It seems that we have not progressed much after three centuries of epistemological debates: Correctness means that a statement is in accordance with something that—after inter-subjective, verifiable sensory perception (by experience, empirically)—can be regarded as a “fact”. Despite all constructionist insights, which were already inherent, for example, in Immanuel Kant’s theory of knowledge (cf. Kant 1956), this is an indispensable requirement of journalistic information: The information must be correct, must be able to withstand inter-subjective verification and not merely—as in scientific hypotheses—be in principle empirically verifiable on an inter-subjective basis. If this is not the case, or if the fact is doubtful to an intolerable extent, then its publication is either unjustified or only admissible when the existing doubts are indicated to the reader.
This last point brings us to the second of Defoe’s components of truth, i.e. the question as to in what manner a topic should be published. Because of subjective selectivity in general and the resulting fact that all knowledge is a construct (further keeping in mind that doubts regarding the correctness of all information can never be fully excluded), truth—especially in the practice of journalism, which is subject to the requirements of immediacy—cannot be taken from the substantial quality of a single statement, but can only result from a virtually unending process of correcting and completing. This process is only achievable in the course of unrestricted inter-subjective communication.
According to this concept—the only one applicable in the field of professional journalism—publication is the precondition of truth. It is not the case that the verification of truth is the precondition of publication. The process of finding truth is maintained if a journalist who issues a statement reveals her or his doubts regarding its objectivity by identifying her- or himself. This declaring of unavoidable impairments to the truth, which is expressed in the routine conveyance of news, for example, by indicating the source of a piece of information in a news item, can be called honesty or truthfulness. Defoe vehemently demands this kind of truthfulness when he calls the spreading of anonymous news one of the greatest evils in the press. He insists that the obligation to disclose the subject standing behind a publication is the best protection against abuses of press freedom because it stimulates a kind of self-regulation through the possibility of holding the subject in question publicly accountable. In Defoe’s opinion, this is a decisive argument against restrictions of the press in general. He therefore regards as justified even legal steps taken against the practice of indicating only an author’s initials.
The third component of truth that Defoe mentions concerns the conditions and the behavior of the subject issuing a journalistic statement. In order to be in a position to report or comment truthfully, the journalist must be independent of political parties and other institutions with their various special interests. He must see it as his sole task to create publicness, which is, of course, also a particular interest, although one of a special kind. Defoe’s fight against the press influenced by the great political parties of his time, the Whigs and the Tories, shows that creating publicness or public discourse on one hand and participating in the struggle for power on the other demands different and incompatible requirements in terms of actions and self-expression. That organisations like political parties, unions or churches involved in the execution of social power (and therefore dependent on such principles as hierarchy and confidentiality) are doomed in the long run to publishing failure—in contrast to enterprises that are primarily interested simply in gaining the attention of the general public—has never been more evident than in the development of the media in the second half of the twentieth century.
Not having to write what a party, an association, a church or a government requires is, first, a substantial part of journalistic liberty and, second, a precondition for orienting oneself in the objective of finding truth. Both are indispensable elements for the creation of publicness and public discourse. In the nineteenth century, even Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were well aware of this. Contrary to a widespread, erroneous belief, both men shared the opinion that they “only wanted to have a paper independent in pecuniary aspects from the party”, for “being dependent, even upon a Labor party, is a heavy lot”, as Engels wrote to August Bebel (Fetscher 1969: 234).
Separation of fact and opinion, news and commentary?
It is interesting that Defoe does not speak of a quality standard which actually only developed and finally prevailed during the nineteenth century in the course of the social differentiation of institutionalized labor and the family, the public and private spheres, masculinity and femininity, classic and popular culture, and information and entertainment—namely, the separation of fact and opinion, news and commentary. From the point of view of honesty, this standard is highly problematic because it nourishes an illusion of truth as the substance of a single news item, that the total absence of subjective ingredients and selections is possible in this narrative form. From a critical perspective, this claim to be objective seems to be put forward in order to camouflage the influence of particular interests on the transfer of information, thereby making such influence especially effective.
In contrast to newspapers like the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung—which in an act of self-promotion praises itself for the by-no-means obvious principle of separation—a serious, world-famous paper like the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, with a tradition reaching back to the Enlightenment, has never emphasized to practice a strict separation of news and commentary. The prevailing journalistic genre in this case is the correspondent’s report offering a mixture of abundant and precise information with the unprotected, clearly recognizable opinion of the writer. This can also be seen as honesty or truthfulness when a subject identifies himself as the producer of a text, thereby serving truth understood as an open, never ending process of communication.
The dialectic of press freedom and truth
Regarding the element of independence, it becomes clear that both the journalist’s commitment to truth and her or his general freedom are not at all opposed as is often insinuated. Both are necessary preconditions for the success of journalistic work, not excluding but completing and sometimes overlapping each other as in the case of the criterion of independence from the interests of power.
At the same time, there is a dialectic of freedom: If journalists exercise freedom without observing the commitment to truth with its manifold obligations, the resulting failures of the media justify external legal measures, which leads to a limitation of the principle of the media’s freedom. From a professional standpoint, this is especially deplorable because it means a restriction on the possibility of creating publicness. Journalists must therefore report in a correct, honest and independent manner in order to defend the freedom of the media as an essential precondition for the execution of their professional task. In individual cases it can happen that the concrete conditions of journalistic practice or even other requirements for journalistic quality, such as immediacy or comprehensibility, may lead to an unintentional violation of the obligation to write the truth. But in the interest of their professional task, journalists cannot afford to regularly disregard correctness, truthfulness and independence.
In one respect, however, Defoe was wrong: Common sense is not sufficient to demonstrate that the news that hundreds of people had been driven by other people into a church and then burned alive was false. At least since Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s book Hitler’s Willing Executioners (Goldhagen 1996), we know that the unimaginable took place during the death marches of concentration camp prisoners at the end of World War II. Even in the face of military defeat, Germans drove thousands of Jews into a barn and burned them alive (cf. Goldhagen 1996: 433). When the American magazine Life published photographs of the unimaginable Holocaust crimes in May 1945, many Americans could not believe what they saw and considered it to be war propaganda of their government, just as Defoe had done more than two centuries before.
We may take from this a lesson: Whether something is correct or not cannot be measured in terms of our imagination. It can only be measured by what our eyes see, our ears hear and our hands feel. The perception of our senses, especially the professionally educated senses of journalists, should be free to register what logic and humanity otherwise consider unimaginable.
Translation: Chris Long and Johannes Rabe
About the author
Horst Pöttker, Univ.-Prof. i. R. Dr. phil.-hist., born in 1944, TU Dortmund University, is currently teaching at the Universities of Hamburg, Vienna and Stavropol. He came to Journalism Studies following a doctorate and post-doctorate in Sociology and work as a newspaper journalist. His work focuses on the societal and historic foundations of journalism, with fields including the origins and development of the profession of journalism, which he distinguishes from the history of the media as a whole. Contact: email@example.com
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 An allusion to the Daily Courant, Britain’s first daily newspaper, which was founded in 1702 and which Defoe often criticized for its inaccuracy.