Change or collapse? If there is one sector where the question is posed with acuity, it is the press.   

It is in “The Spirit of the Laws” that Montesquieu establishes the famous trilogy of the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government – the three magical powers said to be the ingredients of the antidote to totalitarianism. But, as Ignacio Ramonet [1] underscores, “the three traditional powers can fail, misunderstand and make mistakes.” It suffices to chip away at the executive, or the Dreyfus affair, to show that the judicial power is not infallible either. Whence the emergence of a fourth power, the press, vested with the heavy burden of protecting citizens against abuses by the three powers in question. A super-power, of sorts.

The press has withstood the test of time and circumstance time and again since the 19th century, in fact. It has made and unmade kings and emperors. It has been the voice of the voiceless, and has staged revolutions and counterrevolutions. But it pays a very heavy price to exercise this power. In 2018 alone, 80 journalists were killed, according to the fateful count of Reporters without Borders. It held on for decades. It managed to transform itself while remaining true to its primary mission. In the last ten years however, it has come under unprecedented assaults, all the more perverse because unexpected, but which could get the better of it: globalisation and economic pressure on the one hand, and digitization on the other.

The first danger is globalization and economic pressure. The press, which had always watched over its independence like a vestal virgin or been looked after by some moguls with ego and passion, has become the plaything of big global groups, for which it is only a sideline, a content factory of sorts, which feeds an ever increasing quantity of channels and leads. The important thing now is not to report essential items but to fill the leads. Journalists no longer write their stories at the end of the day after having trawled places of power; they produce their text all day long.  This is a caricature, of course: there are still critical intellectuals, opinion leaders and influencers, but they are perhaps no longer found only among journalists.

The second danger – and they are linked, of course – is digitization. In the first instance, digitization provides an entire array of new information distribution channels. A boon?  Yes, but the downside is that it helps strengthen the weight of global giants who provide new outlets for small local press owners. In a second phase, the combination of big data and artificial intelligence could purely and simply toll the death knell of journalist.  It may sound anecdotal, but in November 2018, the Chinese press agency Xinhua News unveiled its very first artificial intelligence TV news anchor.  He presents the news almost as naturally as a human journalist, in English and Chinese.



A robot will not replace all journalists, of course. Just like a robot will not replace all doctors or lawyers, but soon, a large part of journalistic, medical and legal work could be carried out by robots with a greater degree of reliability. This thesis is well developed by Yuval Noah Harari [2] in his best-selling book “Homo Deus”. Harari sees this as an opportunity for man to access something superior, even immortality… In the case of the press, that superior level will be achieved by means of a profound change and perhaps the emergence of a fifth power:  public opinion.

Digitization, again, enables each and every one to be a global influencer. Perhaps these new “journalists” will rediscover the freshness, insolence and taste for polemic of their illustrious predecessors such as Balzac (“The press in France is a fourth power in the State: it attacks and is not attacked by anyone” [3]) or Zola (“I accuse” [4]).

On the marketing front, a recent study [5] on European consumers shows that a very large majority – 69% in France and 78% in the United Kingdom – rely more on the opinion of their peers (other consumers) than influencers (22%) or journalists (9%) in making purchasing decisions.

The margin between the erstwhile authority the press enjoyed (9%) and the opinion of group chats via Instagram or Facebook (69%) is enormous.  This change may be salutary:  global journalism within everyone’s reach. But a form of self-regulation will be needed to avoid a collapse. Whereas journalists have professional ethics and associations, only the sanction of public opinion can curb the excesses of bloggers and influencers.  Now, isn’t public opinion said to be a tyrant?


Thierry Bouckaert


This text was written as part of the 10-year anniversary of the Trans-mutation event.


[1] Ignacio Ramonet, Le Cinquième Pouvoir, Le Monde Diplomatique, October 2003

[2] Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus, A Brief History of Tomorrow, February 2017

[3] In the “Revue Parisienne”, August 1840

[4] In “L’Aurore”, January 1898

[5] Study conducted in June and July 2018 by Morar Research in France, Germany and the United Kingdom.