The Rise of Reuters – The Era of News Agencies

The Rise of Reuters

Communication was central to the expansion and consolidation of modern European empires, the largest and the most powerful being the British Empire, which at its height, 1880-1914, dominated a quarter of humanity. The fortunes of Reuters, the most famous international news agency, can be seen to run in parallel with the growth of the British Empire.
The Era of News Agencies
The expansion of trade and investment during the nineteenth century had led to a huge growth in the demand for news and contributed to the commercialization of news and information services. Reuters astutely exploited this demand, helped by the new communication technologies, especially the telegraph. For British and other European investors Reuters telegrams were essential reading for the latest news from various corners of the British Empire. By 1861 these were being published from more than a hundred datelines, including from the major colonies – India, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.
By the 1870s, Reuters had offices in all the major strategic points of the empire – Calcutta, Bombay and Point de Galle on the southern tip of Sri Lanka, the end of the cable connection with London, from where Reuters supervised its services to Southeast Asia, China, Japan and Australia. In 1871, Shanghai became the headquarters of the growing Reuters presence in East Asia, and after the beginning of commercial mining of gold in southern Africa in the late nineteenth century, Cape Town became another nodal point in Reuters’ global network. By 1914, Reuters news service had three main channels covering the empire: London to Bombay; London to Hong Kong via the Mediterranean to Cairo, Aden, Ceylon and Singapore, and another to Cape Town, Durban, Mombasa, Zanzibar, the Seychelles, and Mauritius (Read, 1992).
The expansion of European capitalism had created a pressing need for improved commercial intelligence and with the development of communication, the value of world trade itself grew more than 25-fold between 1800 and 1913. This relationship between capital and communication was an aspect of what has been called ‘the Reuters Factor’, which ‘functions like a multiplier that turns an increase in the supply of information into an increase in business’ (Chanan, 1985:113).
Reuters also enjoyed very close relationships with the British foreign and colonial administrations. During the second half of the nineteenth century the agency increasingly functioned, in the words of its official historian ‘as an institution of the British Empire’ (Read, 1992: 40). As Britain’s most important colony, India played a ‘central part in the Reuter empire within the British Empire’, constituting a major market for commercial news (Read, 1992: 60). Reuters’ revenues from India more than trebled from 1898 (£11500) to 1918 (£35 200) (ibid. 83).
Though it claimed to be an independent news agency, Reuters was for the most part the unofficial voice of the Empire, giving prominence to British views. This subservience to imperial authority was most prominent during imperial wars such as the Boer War (1899-1902), during which agency reports supported the British cause and the British troops. In the same way Reuters news from India was mostly related to economic and political developments in the Empire and largely ignored the anti-colonial movement.
Defending the Empire came naturally to Reuters: in 1910 Reuters started an imperial news service and a year later, the agency made a secret arrangement with the British Government under which it offered to circulate on its wires official speeches to every corner of the Empire, in return for an annual fee of £500 from the Colonial Office. During the First World War, Reuters launched a wartime news service by arrangement with the Foreign Office, which by 1917 was circulating about one million words per month throughout the Empire.
Reuters’ Managing Director during the war years, George Jones, was also in charge of cable and wireless propaganda for the British Department of Information. Though this service was separate from the main Reuters wire service, whose support for the war was more subtle, it rallied opinion within the Empire and influenced the attitudes of the neutral countries. As one British official wrote in 1917, ‘At Reuters the work done is that of an independent news agency of an objective character, with propaganda secretly infused’ (quoted in Read, 1992:127-8).
Though this service was discontinued after the end of the war, Reuters entered into another agreement with the Foreign Office under which the agency would circulate specific messages on its international wires, to be paid for by the government. This agreement remained in force until the Second World War. However, apart from support from the government the major reason for the continued success of Reuters was the fact that it ‘sold useful information enabling businesses to trade profitably’ (Lawrenson and Barber, 1985:179).
The wider availability of wireless technology after the First World War enabled Reuters in 1920 to launch a trade service, which became a crucial component of the economic life of the Empire. New technology made it easier to send and receive more international industrial and financial information at a faster speed. As the globe was being connected through trans-oceanic trade, such information – for example, New York prices for Indian cotton – had a high premium for traders who were depending on the accuracy of Reuters commodity prices and stock market news from around the world.
Reuters’ domination of international information was helped by its being a member of the cartel and it remained the world news leader between 1870 to 1914. But the weakening of the British Empire and the ascendancy of the USA forced Reuters to compete with the American news agencies, especially Associated Press, with which it signed, in 1942, a wartime news-sharing agreement, effectively creating a new cartel for news. In the post-war period, Reuters continued to focus on commercial information, realizing that in order to succeed in a free trade environment, it had to work towards integration of commodity, currency, equity and financial markets, ‘around the clock and around the world’ (Tunstall and Palmer, 1991:46).
By 1999, Reuters was one of the world’s biggest multimedia corporations dealing ‘in the business of information’, supplying global financial markets and the news media with a range of information and news products, including ‘real-time financial data, collective investment data, numerical, textual, historical and graphical databases plus news, graphics, news video, and news pictures’. In the past five years to 1998, financial information products revenue accounted for 64 per cent of the total while media products revenue accounted for less than 7 per cent of the total revenue (Reuters Annual Report, 1999).
By the end of the twentieth century, what had been started in 1851 by entrepreneur Julius Reuter, whom Karl Marx called ‘a grammatically illiterate Jew’ (quoted in Read, 1992:26), had become the world’s largest provider of financial data, besides being the largest news and television agency with nearly 2 000 journalists in 183 bureaux, serving 157 countries. Its news was gathered and edited for both business and media clients in 23 languages, more than 3 million words were published each day. With 1998 revenue of £3032 million, Reuters was one of the world’s largest media and information corporations, with regional headquarters in London, New York, Geneva and Hong Kong, and offices in 217 cities (Reuters Annual Report, 1999).
One major growth area for the agency which started sending news and commercial information via pigeon in its early years, is the Internet, given the steady growth in online trading. By 1999, it was providing news and information to over 225 Internet sites reaching an estimated 12 million viewers per month. It was planning a global news service on the Internet and had created Reuters Ventures to co-ordinate its on-line operations which include a joint venture with Dow Jones to provide a business database (Barrie and Martinson, 1999).

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The Era of News Agencies

The newspaper industry played a significant role in the development of international telegraph networks, to be able to exploit the rapid increase in demand for news, especially the financial information required to conduct international commerce. The establishment of the news agency was the most important development in the newspaper industry of the nineteenth century, altering the process of news dissemination, nationally and internationally. The increasing demand among business clients for commercial information – on businesses, stocks, currencies, commodities, harvests – ensured that news agencies grew in power and reach.
The French Havas Agency (ancestor of AFP) was founded in 1835, the German agency Wolff in 1849 and the British Reuters in 1851. The US agency, Associated Press (AP) was established in 1848, but only the three European agencies began as international ones; not until the turn of the century did an American agency move in this direction. From the start, Reuters made commercial and financial information its specialty, while Havas was to combine information and advertising. These three European news agencies, Havas, Wolff and Reuters, all of which were subsidized by their respective governments, controlled information markets in Europe and were looking beyond the continent to expand their operations. In 1870 they signed a treaty to divide up the world market between the three of them. The resulting association of agencies (ultimately to include about 30 members), became known variously as the League of Allied Agencies (les Agences Alliees), as the World League of Press Associations, as the National Agencies Alliances, and as the Grand Alliance of Agencies. More commonly, it was referred to simply as the ‘Ring Combination’ (Desmond, 1978). In the view of some it was a ‘cartel’, and its influence on world opinion was used by governments to suit their own purposes (Boyd-Barrett, 1980; Mattelart, 1994).
The basic contract, drawn up in 1870, set ‘reserved territories’ for the three agencies. Each agency made its own separate contracts with national agencies or other subscribers within its own territory. Provision was made for a few ‘shared’ territories, in which two, sometimes all three agencies had equal rights. In practice, Reuters, whose idea it was, tended to dominate the Ring Combination. Its influence was greatest because its reserved territories were larger or of greater news importance than most others. It also had more staff and stringers throughout the world and thus contributed more original news to the pool. British control of cable lines made London itself an unrivalled centre for world news, further enhanced by Britain’s wide ranging commercial, financial and imperial activities (Read, 1992).
In 1890, Wolff, Reuters and Havas signed a new treaty for a further ten years. Havas emerged stronger than ever – it gained South America as an exclusive territory, and also Indo-China. But Havas yielded its position in Egypt, which became exclusive Reuters territory but continued to share Belgium and Central America with Reuters. ‘The major European agencies were based in imperial capitals. Their expansion outside Europe was intimately associated with the territorial colonialism of the late nineteenth century’ (Boyd-Barrett, 1980: 23).
After the First World War, although Wolff ceased to be a world agency, the cartel continued to dominate international news distribution. The first challenge to their monopoly came from AP when it started supplying news to Latin America. With the international news cartel broken by the 1930s, AP and other US agencies such as United Press (UP), founded in 1907, (which later became United Press International (UPI) in 1958 after merger with Hearst’s International News Service), began to encroach on their terrain. AP began to expand internationally, paralleling political changes in Europe with the weakening of the European empires after the First World War.
The Rise of Reuters – The Era of News Agencies

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The Growth of the Telegraph

The second half of the nineteenth century saw an expanding system of imperial communications made possible by the electric telegraph. Invented by Samuel Morse in 1837, the telegraph enabled the rapid transmission of information, as well as ensuring secrecy and code protection. The business community was first to make use of this new technology. The speed and reliability of telegraphy were seen to offer opportunities for profit and international expansion (Headrick, 1991).
The rapid development of the telegraph was a crucial feature in the unification of the British Empire. With the first commercial telegraph link set up in Britain in 1838, by 1851 a public telegraph service, including a telegraphic money order system, had been introduced. By the end of the century, as a result of the cable connections, the telegraph allowed the Colonial Office and the India Office to communicate directly with the Empire within minutes when, previously, it had taken months for post to come via sea. By providing spot prices for commodities like cotton, the telegraph enabled British merchants, exporting cotton from India or Egypt to England, to easily beat their competitors (Read, 1992).
The new technology also had significant military implications. The overhead telegraph, installed in Algeria in 1842, proved a decisive aid to the French during the occupation and colonization of Algeria (Mattelart, 1994). During the Crimean War (1854-56), the rival imperial powers, Britain and France, trying to prevent Russian westward expansion that threatened overland routes to their colonial territories in Asia, exchanged military intelligence through an underwater cable in the Black Sea laid by the British during the conflict. (The Crimean conflict was notable for the pioneer war reports of Irishman William Howard Russell in The Times of London, who was to become the first ‘big name’ in international journalism.)
Similarly, during the Civil War in the US (1861-65) over 24000 kilometres of cable was laid to send more than 6.5 million telegrams. The American Civil War was not only one of the earliest conflicts to be extensively reported, but also the first example both of co-operative news gathering among the American and European journalists, and of the use of photo-journalism.

The first underwater telegraphic cable which linked Britain and France became operational in 1851 and the first transatlantic cable, connecting Britain and the USA, in 1866. Between 1851 and 1868, underwater networks were laid down across the North Atlantic, the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean, and the Persian Gulf. During the 1860s and 1870s, London was linked up by cable to the key areas of the Empire (see map, p. 15). The first line between Europe and India via Turkey was opened in 1865. Two other cables to India – one overland across Russia and the other undersea via Alexandria and Aden were both started in 1870. India was linked to Hong Kong in 1871 and to Australia in 1872 and Shanghai and Tokyo were linked by 1873 (Read, 1992). By the 1870s, telegraph lines were operating within most countries in Asia and an international communication network, dominated by Britain, was beginning to emerge. The expansion of cable was marked by the rivalry between British and French Empires, which intensified after 1869, with the opening of the Suez Canal.
The decade from 1870 to 1880 saw the successive inaugurations of communications links between the English coast and the Dutch East Indies (Batavia), the Caribbean network, the line from the British West Indies to Australia and China, the networks in the China and Japanese seas, the cable from Suez to Aden, communication between Aden and British India, the New Zealand cables, communication between the east and south coasts of Africa, and the cable from Hong Kong to Manila (Read, 1992).
In South America, the south transatlantic cable, opened in 1874, linked Lisbon with Recife, Brazil, via the Cape Verde Islands and Madeira. Two years later, a network was established along the coast of Chile. The British cable of 1874 was joined in 1879 by a new French cable across the North Atlantic, with a spur to Brazil, and by a new German cable from Emden to the Azores to Morovia on the African coast, and from there to Recife. By 1881, a network along the pacific coast from Mexico to Peru was in operation. In the 1880s, France established a series of links along the coast of Indochina and Africa, with networks in Senegal (Desmond, 1978).
The British-sponsored Indo-European landline telegraph between India and the Prussian North Sea coast had gone into operation in 1865. The cable had been extended from British shores to Alexandria by 1869, to Bombay in 1870, and other cables had been extended from Madras to Ceylon and from Singapore to Australia and New Zealand by 1873, and also to Hong Kong, Shanghai and the Japanese coast. Connections were made in China in 1896 with a spur of the Great Northern Telegraph Company Danish-owned line across Siberia to Russia and other points in Europe. This made a Tokyo-Shanghai-St Petersburg-London communications link possible (Desmond, 1978).
Undersea cables required huge capital investment, which was met by colonial authorities and by banks, businessmen and the fast-growing newspaper industry, and the cable networks were largely in the hands of the private sector. Of the total cable distance of 104000 miles, not more than 10 per cent was administered by governments. To regulate the growing internationalization of information, the International Telegraph Union was founded in 1865 with 22 members, all Europeans, except Persia, representing, ‘the first international institution of the modern era and the first organisation for the international regulation of a technical network’ (Mattelart, 1994: 9).
According to the International Telegraph Union, the number of telegraphic transmissions in the world shot from 29 million in 1868 to 329 million in 1900 (Mattelart, 1994). For the first time in history, colonial metropolis acquired the means to communicate almost instantly with their remotest colonies … The world was more deeply transformed in the nineteenth century than in any previous millennium, and among the transformations few had results as dazzling as the network of communication and transportation that arose to link Europe with the rest of the world. (Headrick, 1981: 129-30)
Military operations – such as the Japanese-Russian war of 1904-5, were both assisted and reported by the first transpacific cable which had been completed in 1902, joint property of the governments of Australia, New Zealand, Britain and Canada. It ran from Vancouver to Sydney and Brisbane, by way of Fanning Island, Suva, and Norfolk Island, with a spur from Norfolk Island to Auckland. A connection already existed, established in 1873, linking Tokyo and London, with spurs to Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Colombo, Calcutta, Bombay, and Alexandria, and with cable and telegraphic spurs by way of Singapore and Batavia to Darwin, Sydney and Auckland, where ties were made to the new transpacific cable to Vancouver.
A second transpacific cable was completed in 1903 by US interests, providing a link between San Francisco and Manila, through Honolulu, to Midway Island and Guam, and from there to the Asian mainland and Japan by existing British cables. All of these landing points were controlled by the United States: the Hawaiin Islands had been a US territory since 1900 and Midway was claimed by it in 1867, while Guam and the Philippines had become US colonies as a result of the 1898 Spanish-American War (Desmond, 1978). Control over cables as well as sea routes was also of enormous strategic importance in an age of imperial rivalry (Kennedy, 1971). The cables were, in the words of Headrick, ‘an essential part of the new imperialism’ (1981: 163).
The outcomes of the two imperial wars – the Spanish-American War (1898) and the Boer War (1899-1902) – strengthened the European and US positions in the world and led to a rapid expansion in world trade that demanded immediate and vastly improved communications links, as well as more advanced naval capabilities. The new technology of ‘wireless’ telegraphy (also called radiotelegraphy) promised to meet these needs.
In 1901 Guglielmo Marconi harnessed the new discovery of electromagnetism to make the first wireless transatlantic telegraph transmission, with support from naval armament companies and newspaper groups. The British Empire had a great technological advantage since the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of Great Britain dominated global telegraph traffic and had a virtual monopoly on international telegraph exchanges, as it refused to communicate with any other system other than its own. The operators of a Marconi apparatus were prohibited from responding to radio signals emanating from a non-Marconi transmitter, a policy that had the effect of blocking the exchange of critically important information relating to the safe passage of ships. However, at the Berlin Conference on Wireless Telegraphy in 1906 the first multilateral agreements on radiotelegraphy were signed and the International Radiotelegraph Union was born. By 1907 Marconi’s monopoly was being challenged by other European countries as well as the United States.
The dominance of British cable companies, which lasted until the end of the First World War, was based on direct control through ownership, and indirect control by means of diplomatic censorship, which Britain exercised over the messages travelling through its cables. Britain had a critical advantage in its control of the copper and gutta-percha markets – the raw materials for the manufacture of cable – since the world rates of these were fixed in London and British mining companies owned copper deposits and mines in Chile, the world’s biggest producer (Read, 1992).
Colonial governments supported the cable companies, either scientifically by research on maps and navigation, or financially by subsidies. In 1904, 22 of the 25 companies that managed international networks were affiliates of British firms; Britain deployed 25 ships totalling 70 000 tons, while the six vessels of the French cable-fleet amounted to only 7000 tons. As a result, British supremacy over the undersea networks was overwhelming: in 1910, the Empire controlled about half the world total, or 260 000 kilometres. France, which in contrast to the USA and UK, opted for the state administration of cable, controlled no more than 44000 kilometres (Headrick, 1991; Mattelart, 1994). As Table 1.1 demonstrates, the Anglo-American domination of international communication hardware was well established by the late nineteenth century, with the two countries owning nearly 75 per cent of the world’s cables.
Much of the global cabling was done by private companies, with Britain’s Eastern Telegraph Company and the US-based Western Union Telegraph Company dominating the cable industry. By 1923, private companies had nearly 75 per cent of the global cabling share, with British accounting for nearly 43 per cent, followed by the American companies which owned 23 per cent (Headrick, 1991). Within a quarter of a century, the world’s cable networks had more than doubled in length.
As British companies were losing their share of global cable, the Americans increased their control on international communication channels by leasing cables from British firms. US companies challenged Britain’s supremacy in the field of international cables and telegraph traffic, which, they claimed, gave unfair advantage to British trade. The American view was that the pre-war cable system had ‘been built in order to connect the old world commercial centres with world business’ and that now was the time to develop ‘a new system with the United States as a centre’ (cited in Luther, 1988:20).
The cables were the arteries of an international network of information, of intelligence services and of propaganda. Their importance can be gauged from the fact that the day after the First World War broke out, the British cut both German transatlantic cables. After the war, the debates over who should control the cables, which had been taken over early in the war, one by the British and another by the French, dominated discussions at the 1919 peace talks at Versailles and reflected the rivalry between the British cable companies and the growing US radio interests for ownership and control of global communications networks. The USA proposed that the cables be held jointly under international control or trusteeship and that a world congress be convened to consider international aspects of telegraph, cable and radio communication (Luther, 1988).
Unlike cables, the Americans dominated the new technology of telephones. Following the patenting of the telephone by the Bell Telephone Company, established by the inventor of telephony Alexander Graham Bell in 1877, telephone production increased in the US. In 1885, American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T), later to become the head office of Bell Systems, was founded and for the next 80 years it succeeded in keeping a near-monopoly over US telecommunications networks.
Britain, Spain, France and Italy as well as in Japan, China and Australia (Mattelart, 1994). However, the area covered by telephones was very limited – telephone networks acquired a global dimension only in 1956 when the first telephone cable was laid under the Atlantic.

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The historical context of international communication

The study of contemporary international communication can be illuminated by an understanding of the elements of continuity and change in its development. The nexus of economic, military and political power has always
depended on efficient systems of communication, from flags, beacon fires and runners, to ships and telegraph wires, and now satellites. The evolution of telegraphic communication and empire in the nineteenth century exemplifies
these interrelationships, which continued throughout the twentieth century, even after the end of empire. During the two World Wars and the Cold War, the power and significance of the new media – radio and then television – for international communication were demonstrated by their use for international propaganda as well as recognizing their potential for socioeconomic development.
Communication and empire
Communication has always been critical to the establishment and maintenance of power over distance. From the Persian, Greek and Roman empires to the British, efficient networks of communication were essential for the imposition of imperial authority, as well as for the international trade and commerce on which they were based. Indeed, the extent of
empire could be used as an ‘indication of the efficiency of communication’ (Innis, [1950] 1972: 9). Communications networks and technologies were key to the mechanics of distributed government, military campaigns and trade. The Greek historian, Diodorus Cronus (4th century BC) recounts how the Persian king, Darius I (522-486 BC), who extended the Persian Empire from the Danube to the Indus, could send news from the capital to the provinces by means of a line of shouting men positioned on heights. This kind of transmission was 30 times faster than using runners. In De Bello Gallico,Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) reports that the Gauls, using the human voice, could call all their warriors to war in just three days. Using fire at night and smoke or mirrors during the day is mentioned in ancient texts, from the Old Testament to Homer.
While many rulers, including the Greek polis, used inscription for public information, writing became a more flexible and efficient means of conveying information over long distances: ‘Rome, Persia and the Great Khan
of China all utilised writing in systems of information-gathering and dispersal, creating wide-ranging official postal and dispatch systems’ (Lewis,1996:152). It is said that the Acta Diurna, founded by Julius Caesar and one
of the forerunners of modern news media, was distributed across most of the Roman Empire: ‘as communication became more efficient, the possibility of control from the centre became greater’ (Lewis, 1996: 156).
The Indian Emperor Ashoka’s edicts, inscribed on rock in the third century BC, are found across South Asia, from Afghanistan to Sri Lanka and writ writers had a prominent place in the royal household. During the
Mughal period in Indian history, the tvaqi’a-nawis (newswriters) were employed by the kings to appraise them of the progress in the empire. Both horsemen and despatch runners transmitted news and reports. In China, the
T’ang Dynasty (618-907) created a formal hand-written publication, the tipao or ‘official newspaper’ which disseminated information to the elite and in the Ching Period (1644-1911) private news bureaux sprang up which
composed and circulated official news in the printed form known as the Ch’ingpao (Smith, 1979).
In addition to official systems of communication, there have also always been informal networks of travellers and traders. The technologies of international communication and globalization may be contemporary phenomena
but trade and cultural interchanges have existed for more than two millennia between the Graeco-Roman world with Arabia, India and China. Indian merchandise was exported to the Persian Gulf and then overland,
through Mesopotamia, to the Mediterranean coast, and from there onwards to Western Europe. An extensive trans-Asian trade flourished in ancient times, linking China with India and the Arabic lands. Later, the Silk Route
through central Asia linked China, India and Persia with Europe.
Information and ideas were communicated across continents, as shown by the spread of Buddhism, Christianity and Islam.
The medium of communication developed from the clay tablet of Mesopotamia, the papyrus roll in ancient Egypt and in ancient Greece, to parchment codex in the Roman empire. By the eighth century, paper introduced
from China began to replace parchment in the Islamic world and spread to medieval Europe. Also from China, printing slowly diffused to Europe, aided by the Moors’ occupation of Spain, but it was not until the fifteenth
century, with the movable type printing press developed by Johann Gutenberg, a goldsmith in Mainz in Germany, that the means of communication were transformed.
By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the printing presses were turning out thousands of copies of books in all the major European languages. For the first time the Scriptures were available in a language other
than Latin, undermining the authority of priests, scribes and political and cultural elites. As a consequence, ‘the unified Latin culture of Europe was finally dissolved by the rise of the vernacular languages which was consolidated
by the printing press’ (Febvre and Martin, 1990: 332). Coupled with vernacular translations of the Bible by John Wycliffe in England and Martin Luther in Germany, the printing revolution helped to lay the basis for the
Reformation and the foundations of nation-state and of modern capitalism (Tawney, 1937; Eisenstein, 1979).
The new languages, especially Portuguese, Spanish, English and French, became the main vehicle of communication for the European colonial powers in many parts of the world. This transplantation of communication
systems around the globe resulted in the undermining of local languages and cultures of the conquered territories. The Portuguese Empire was one of the first to grasp the importance of the medium for colonial consolidation, with
the kings of Portugal sending books in the cargoes of ships carrying explorers. They opened printing presses in the territories they occupied – the first printing press was opened in Goa in 1557 and in Macao in 1588. Other
European powers also used the new technology and the printed book played an important role in the colonization of Asia. European languages – especially Portuguese, Spanish, English and French – became the main vehicle of
communication for the colonial powers in many parts of the world. This transplantation of communication systems around the globe created a new hierarchy of language and culture in the conquered territories (Smith, 1980).
The Industrial Revolution in Western Europe, founded on the profits of the growing international commerce encouraged by colonization, gave a huge stimulus to the internationalization of communication. Britain’s domination
of the sea routes of international commerce was to a large extent due to the pre-eminence of its navy and merchant fleet, a result of pioneering work in the mapping out of naval charts by the great eighteenth-century
explorers, such as James Cook, enabled also by the determination of longitude based on the Greenwich Meridian. Technological advances such the development of the iron ship, the steam engine and the electric telegraph all
helped to keep Britain ahead of its rivals.
The growth of international trade and investment required a constant source of reliable data about international trade and economic affairs, while the Empire required a constant supply of information essential for maintaining
political alliances and military security. Waves of emigration as a result of industrialization and empire helped to create a popular demand for news from relatives at home and abroad, and a general climate of international
awareness (Smith, 1980).
The postal reform in England in 1840, initiated by the well-known author, Anthony Trollope as Post-Master General, with the adoption of a single-rate, one penny postage stamp (the Penny Black), irrespective of distance, revolutionized postal systems. This was followed by the establishment of the Universal Postal Union in 1875 in Berne, under the Universal Postal Convention of 1874, created to harmonize international postal rates and to
recognize the principle of respect for the secrecy of correspondence. With the innovations in transport of railways and steamships, international links were being established that accelerated the growth of European trade and
consolidated colonial empires.

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Virtue ethics in Media Ethics and Governance

Virtue ethics is the next approach that we will cover. This brand of ethics does not aim at establishing codifiable universal principles that would amount to a decision procedure for determining what the right action would be in any given case, but rather focuses on the role of virtues and the character of a person. It has its origins in ancient Greek philosophy, in the thought of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.
A key question in virtue ethics is how to mould individual character based on models of virtue, or to put it more simply: How can we become a ‘good person’? (Athanassoulis, n.d.; Plaisance, 2014: 24). One should strive to develop a ‘virtuous character’. This entails a much broader perspective than the other two approaches, which focus on specific ethical dilemmas that need to be solved.

A virtue may be considered a character trait, but it is more than this: it is entrenched in the mindset of a person. Virtues are visible in the considerations one has when taking action, which is different from using – for example – deontological rules in ethical behavior. For example, a courageous person is one who values courage, not because they say they do, but because they take considerations regarding ‘courage’ into account when thinking about what to do in a certain situation. In this sense, a courageous person tries to strike a balance between being reckless and cowardly. This is called the doctrine of the mean: virtuous behavior is about finding a balance between excess and deficiency, depending on the situation (Plaisance, 2014). Practical wisdom, which comes with life experience, helps a virtuous person when making such decisions; it helps us to reason in a good way.
But why would we do this? Aristotle’s answer is Eudaimonia, which is difficult to translate but is commonly described as ‘living well’, ‘welfare’ or ‘human flourishing’ – the highest end of human life. Alasdair MacIntyre, who can be considered a contemporary virtue ethicist, also argued that virtuous behavior applies to society as a whole: a life well lived contributes to a flourishing society.
So, if our characters reflect virtues, we will not only serve ourselves. It is also essential and beneficial to society as a whole. In this regard, MacIntyre identifies external goods (later reformulated as goods of effectiveness) that are not specific to a practice and can be obtained in several ways. Examples of such goods are power and money: in the case of money, you can become richer by working more, by saving or by inheritance. He also identifies internal goods (later reformulated as goods of excellence) that – I quote – you can ‘only obtain through a particular practice’ and which have as a characteristic that ‘their achievement is a good for the whole community who participate in the practice’. Each practice has an overriding end, its telos.
For example, if you want to improve the reputation of your organization by external communication, then you need to engage in this kind of communication. If this is practised in a good way, the organization and its stakeholders will benefit from it. The ‘community’ of practitioners in corporate communication can learn from this as well and, consequently, develop their own external communication skills. A virtue in this sense is an ‘acquired human quality’ that enables us to achieve internal goods (MacIntyre, 1981). To put it very short, while you get socialized in your practice as a communication professional, you will practice your virtues, strive at internal goods, deliver good communication ‘products’ and thus serve our common good.

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Consequentialism and Utilitarianism in Media Ethics & Governance

One of the principal ethical philosophies is consequentialism, a class of normative ethical theories. This theory can be seen as one of the leading moral perspectives in Western society, and it has dominated media ethics during the last century.
As its name suggests, consequentialism holds that the consequences of one’s conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness or wrongness of that conduct. Thus, from a consequentialist standpoint, a morally right act is one that will produce a good outcome, or consequence.

One of the philosophies within consequentialism – besides several classic variations – is utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is a theory in normative ethics which holds that the best moral action is the one that maximizes utility. Utility in this context is happiness, or pleasure. In short, this is about ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’. By asking what will bring the greatest amount of happiness to the greatest number of people, utilitarians are trying to find out what is best for society as a whole.
Back in the nineteenth century, Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, developed the ‘hedonistic calculus’. This is a way of calculating how an act will result in the best outcome for the most people. He actually tried to transform ethics into an exact science! By weighing the “pleasures” and “pains” of any given action, his conclusion was that any action that produced more pleasure than pain was morally right.
In media and journalism, we can identify examples of a utilitarian way of thinking on a daily basis. Let’s take for example the invasion of privacy that occurs when a photo of a fatal car accident is published in a newspaper. We all understand that this will cause harm to the victim’s family, but at the same time it is perceived as important to inform the public about this accident and to warn them about risky behaviour.
John Stuart Mill expanded this concept of utility to include not only the quantity, but also the quality of pleasure. He stated that people are completely free to make their own choices, as long as their actions don’t harm others. Mill argued that, to be completely happy, we have to be free and independent. But unlike Bentham, he doesn’t agree that happiness can be calculated. Some forms of happiness are more worthy than others, so his viewpoint on utilitarianism is more qualitative than quantitative. Utility is thus defined by Mill as happiness with the absence of pain. And, in order for the action to be moral it must be the optimal choice in increasing utility and minimizing pain.
For most people, this way of thinking about happiness sounds quite logical and wonderful, and the utilitarian idea therefore dominated the landscape of moral philosophy. But, there are some famous critics on this way of thinking. One of these critics is John Rawls . We will be exploring his perspective on utilitarianism in the next clip. We will also apply the ideas of consequentialism and utilitarianism to our current media environment.
In the previous video we talked about consequentialism and utilitarianism, ethical theories that focus on the outcomes of one’s choices and actions. Let’s dive into these ideas a little further, by looking at criticisms of utilitarianism and what this theory means in our current media environment.
One of the most famous criticisms of utilitarianism came from John Rawls, who is perhaps the most important political philosopher of the twentieth century. His book ‘A Theory of Justice, published in 1971, is a classic. In the book, he presents 2 principles of justice, which should guide the functioning of any society.
The first principle, the ‘liberty principle’, calls for a system of basic freedoms and equal rights for everyone. Consider for instance the principles of freedom of speech, the pursuit of happiness and political liberty. Political liberty means that everyone with similar skills and motivations should be able to hold political positions and offices and to influence elections, regardless of their social class, that is to say, political liberty to vote and run for office.
Rawls’s second principle is the ‘difference principle’. This principle states that societal inequalities can be justified, as long as they are to the benefit (when beneficial) of the least well off and of (for) society as a whole. So, while utilitarianism justifies principles by asking what is best for the greatest number of people, Rawls places justice for all above utility as the most important goal in society.
John Rawls also developed a thinking tool for coming to the most socially justifiable solution, especially when we have to make decisions about dividing resources: “the veil of ignorance”. According to Rawls, we can come to the fairest decisions if we use all our knowledge about the world and our rational thinking skills, but at the same time ignore who we are as a person. So, try this with me: forget your age, gender, race, intelligence, health, wealth, and forget the country where you were born. How would you divide resources if there is a possibility that you are one of the poor or unhealthy? Probably in a way that would benefit the least well off, right?
Another criticism of utilitarianism came from philosopher, and third president of the United States of America, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson warned that being too utilitarian could result in the “tyranny of the majority”: if you let people decide on what is best for the majority of people, this could result in paternalistic, racist or sexist world views and practices that benefit the majority but harm minorities. We will return to this notion, when I will discuss alternative paradigms, such as care ethics and feminist ethics.
Let’s now take a look at what consequentialism and utilitarianism could look like in our current media climate.
With the rise of media technology and technological devices such as computers and smartphones, we are now able to look up any type of information at any moment and be in constant contact with our friends and family. This has empowered us and made us smarter than ever before, and has resulted in many benefits for many people. From a consequentialist or utilitarian viewpoint this seems to be a good development, right?
Well, some people have argued that it can lead to “cyber‐centrism”. Cyber‐centrism refers to prioritizing tools over environment. It also means placing efficiency and convenience above moral concerns and values such as trust, human contact, privacy and safety. It has also been said we might become “technological determinists”, where the mere use of technology may become the ‘greatest good for the greatest number of people’, and we might lose track of the possible harm it does to others. Related to this is the so called knowledge gap, a negative consequence of media technology that creates and increases inequalities between people in terms of knowledge. Those who already have access to knowledge can increase such knowledge through technology, whereas those who do not have access to knowledge stay behind.

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Ethics & Morals in Media Ethics & Governance

When discussing communication ethics, it is important to understand exactly what is meant by
‘ethics’. Sometimes, people confuse ethics with behaving in accordance with social conventions,
religious beliefs and the law. And, sometimes the terms ethics and morals are used
interchangeably, because they clearly are both related to “right” and “wrong” conduct. However,
they are not the same thing at all!
Ethics refer to rules provided by an external source. They are governed by professional and legal
guidelines within a particular time and place. Ethics are all about how we deal with ‘grey areas’.
Ethics therefore refer to the value judgments we make on bigger and smaller matters, in
communication as well as in other fields.
A concrete example of ethics are codes of conduct in workplaces. Lawyers, policemen, and
doctors all have to follow an ethical code laid down by their profession, regardless of their own
feelings or preferences. In a specific communication setting, we can say that The Society of
Professional Journalists Code of Ethics is a good example. In this code, several principles of
ethical journalism are included, with instructions on how to behave as an objective, transparent
and reliable journalist. In this code of ethics, we find principles such as ‘seek truth and report it’
and ‘minimize harm for sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public’.
Morals refer to an individual’s own principles regarding right and wrong. For example, a
journalist may exaggerate a little to create a more sensational story. These principles are not
written in legal guidelines, but are subject to one’s own gut feeling about what is good or bad. Of
course, most decisions are not captured in a code of conduct, but ask for people’s personal
cultural norms for dealing with issues. Then you really must trust your own moral compass!
When we study people’s principles about what is good or bad, we find two forms of ethics:
Descriptive and prescriptive ethics. The crucial difference between these principles is describing
or explaining behavior, versus guiding or prescribing.
Descriptive ethics are concerned with ‘what is’. They are also known as comparative ethics. This
is the scientific study of moral beliefs and practices of different peoples and cultures in various
places and times, in order to describe how people behave and think when dealing with moral
issues and arguments. The essential question in this form of ethics is ‘What do people think is
right in a certain place, time or situation?’.
Prescriptive ethics are all about ‘what ought to be’. Therefore, this form is also known as
normative ethics. This is the study of principles, rules, or theories that guide our actions and
judgements, in order to determine what actually is morally right or wrong. The essential
question in this form of ethics is ‘How should people act?’.
And of course we need to apply this distinction between two forms of ethics in the field of
communication! For example, we could state that descriptive ethics would be used when
determining what proportion of tabloid journalists believe that it is no problem to invade the
personal privacy of celebrities in order to boost sales. On the other hand, normative ethics would
be used to determine whether it is correct to hold such a belief.
So, now you know more about morals and the different forms of ethics. In the next clip, we will
explain the difference between sophistry and relativism.

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