The Fourth Estate

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A University Essay on the concept of the Fourth Estate.

Submitted: February 10, 2014

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Submitted: February 10, 2014

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Discuss the historical emergence of the concept of the Fourth Estate. To what extent is this term still useful for understanding the role of the press today?
The rise of the ‘modern’ democratic state came from the rise of professional classes. The increase in desire for the immediacy of news meant that by the end of the 19th century the modern newspaper industry had been established as an important foundation of the democratic process in increasingly literate societies and ultimately leading to the professionalization of journalism. It is commonly acknowledged throughout society that to have real democracy it is important to have a level of transparency in government, meaning that the public can see what the government does in the public’s name. One way to achieve this transparency is to have an independent watchdog, paying attention to and informing the public on what the government does. This is the idea that the term ‘The Fourth Estate’ comes from. Following on from the 19th century and with the growing influence and power of the press it led to the ‘nickname’ of ‘The Fourth Estate’ who’s power and influence over political and public life was considered significant. The three ‘estates’ being ‘watched’ by the press (the fourth) were the House of Lords, The House of Commons and the Church. Unofficially, the job of the Fourth Estate was to act as a watchdog for the public over these three ‘estates’ meaning that the press at the time of the Fourth Estate’s conception and also today, had huge influence over public and political life. When discussing the historical emergence of the concept of the Fourth Estate it is also important to analyse to what extent the concept of the Fourth Estate is still useful for understanding the role of the press today. With this in mind it is important to attempt to answer questions such as: does the idea of the Fourth Estate still exist and in relation to this, what role does the press play today?
Firstly, it is vital to discuss why the emergence of the Fourth Estate is important for democracy and the ongoing battle against government and church corruption and oppression. The press, and nowadays the wider mass media, is often seen as a guardian of democracy, relied upon by the public to inform it of any corruption of those in power. This is clearly important to the strengthening of democracy as without a watchdog of some sort, governments could pass laws that are detrimental to the wider public. Coronel (2003) suggests the importance of a watchdog when she states ‘Investigative reporting, which in some cases has led to the ousting of presidents and the fall of corrupt governments, has made the media an effective and credible watchdog and boosted its credibility among the public’.
This shows that the press as a watchdog has immense potential to radically change political life. With reference to the earlier point regarding the importance of transparency in government, Coronel (2003. b.) also mentions this: ‘Investigative reporting has also helped accustom officials to an inquisitive press and helped build a culture of openness and disclosure that has made democratically elected governments more accountable.’
Coronel’s example clearly conveys the importance of a watchdog, suggesting that by being investigative and inquisitive government officials are forced to be open and truthful and if they are not then they can be held accountable for their actions. In the case of modern times, the term ‘media’ is interchangeable with the ‘press’ and because of this it can be argued that the new wider mass media now represents the ideals of the Fourth Estate to some extent. For democracy to work efficiently, the general public must participate, and by voting, taking part in debates and simply being informed and educated, they can do this. Once again Coronel’s article The Role of The Media in Deepening Democracy (2003) mentions this point: ‘Democracy requires the active participation of citizens. Ideally, the media should keep citizens engaged in the business of governance by informing, educating and mobilising the public.’
Having seen the positive side of good investigative journalism acting as the Fourth Estate to strengthen democracy, it can also be argued that a press that does not inform and educate the public on political matters in an impartial manner, is partly to blame for a lack of progressive politics. Kronig (2004) mentions this when he states that ‘A culture of contempt for politicians is spreading, political debate is more and more contaminated in our hectic media societies. In a democracy without informed citizens, it will be ever more difficult to pursue progressive politics.’
In a sense, Kronig here also suggests the importance of an investigative, inquiring Fourth Estate for the strengthening of democracy but conveys the point that this is not happening and therefore the pursuit of ‘progressive politics’ or the strengthening of democracy is difficult to achieve when this is the case. This highlights the fact that the idea of the Fourth Estate is vital for true democracy where the public is informed, however due to the suggested point by Kronig that the media is not informing the public regarding politics, it can be said that the term The Fourth Estate is only useful for understanding the role of the press today to some extent.
Following on from the discussion regarding the importance of the Fourth Estate on the strengthening of democracy in relation to what extent the term the Fourth Estate is useful for understanding the role of the press today, it is also essential to try and answer the question ‘Does the Fourth Estate still exist?’ Coronel’s example of the media using its influence over the public and political life to disrupt corrupt presidencies and governments suggests that to some extent the Fourth Estate does still exist. However, when reading Kronig’s thoughts on the matter, it appears that the Fourth Estate no longer exists due to his suggestive points regarding an uninformed public. Norris (2007) states that ‘…in independent and democratic countries, the free press encourages government responsiveness to public concerns...’
Bearing Norris’ thoughts in mind, we must now ask, does the press in this country encourage government responsiveness to public concerns such as the austerity measures that have been imposed? Before answering that question it is important to mention that there is significant outrage towards the government with regards to the austerity measures. Along with this there is little responsiveness to public concerns by the government, meaning that our press in Britain does not encourage government responsiveness to public concerns. This leads to the conclusion, based on Norris’ thoughts about democratic countries, that we no longer live in a democratic country and therefore there is an argument to be made that the Fourth Estate no longer exists here. Perhaps, if the Fourth Estate did exist, the government would show at least some responsiveness to public concerns, but, as they do not seem to show any, it seems that the idea that the press acts as the Fourth Estate is long gone. However, instead of the view that the press was the Fourth Estate, it is more suitable to suggest that the Fourth Estate is an ideology that those within the ‘press’ held and believed in at the time of the Fourth Estate’s conception, which is not to say that some journalists, newspapers and other sections of the media do not still believe in this ideology. The vast majority of the population of Britain, it could be argued, believe in the necessity of a Fourth Estate and therefore this leaves a question mark over why there does not seem to be a general press attitude of being a watchdog over those in power, meaning that they can and do act as they please, with numerous scandals to call upon as evidence for this point. Scandals that have not been significant, in general terms, across all press outlets. In terms of the question, it is to a rather small extent, based on the previous points, that the term The Fourth Estate is still useful for understanding the role of the press today. This comes from the popular view that the press are not watchdogs of the powerful elite or the government but rather have a ‘cosy’ relationship with those in power which can be seen as a conflict of interests. Lewis (et al. 2011) states that ‘A relationship with sources that is "too cosy" is potentially compromising of journalists’ integrity and risks becoming collusive. Journalists have typically favoured a more robust, conflict model, based on a crucial assumption that if the media are to function as watchdogs of powerful economic and political interests, journalists must establish their independence of sources…’
If, as Lewis states, the media are to function as watchdogs then it is a conflict of interests to have more than a normal journalistic relationship with those in power and government. Therefore the closeness of former editor of The Sun newspaper Rebekah Brooks and Prime Minister David Cameron shows that in this case Rebekah Brooks’ interests are conflicted and therefore the idea that she was part of the watchdog over the government is undermined. Boffey (2012) explained the relationship when he stated in The Guardian newspaper that ‘David Cameron is facing huge embarrassment after details of intimate texts he exchanged with the former News International chief Rebekah Brooks emerged on Saturday.’ By looking at the apparent friendship between Brooks and Cameron, it is easy to identify a possible reason why it can be argued that The Fourth Estate no longer exists and why that term is not particularly useful for understanding the role of the press today with reference to the historical emergence and meaning of the term The Fourth Estate. The reason is that a ‘watchdog’ is not going to act and report impartially and inform the public on a member of government if they are friends with that person.
Gentzkow (et al. 2004.) states that‘…newspapers in the 1870s had just begun their transition from being highly politicized organs, as they were in the ante-bellum era, to being more independent of political parties.’
With this in mind, it seems that newspapers have come ‘full circle’ in the sense that they were once highly politicized, supporting one party or another, then they became independent of political parties and restraints and assumed the role of a watchdog over the powerful elite, and today newspapers in general are once again politicized and supportive of one party or another. This leads conveniently to the question of what role the press plays today. It is clear to see that the press is not an impartial watchdog of the government and those in power. It seems instead as if at some point an agreement between the two ‘estates’ has been made that the press work as a political public relations firm. This point is evidenced by the friendship between former news editor Rebekah Brooks and the Prime Minister David Cameron, meaning that any close relationship between government and the press must be seen as a conflict of interests, assuming that the press’ interests still remain to inform the public of political goings-on in an objective manner. If this is not the case and the press is now indistinguishable from the state then it no longer remains a conflict of interest. However, if this is the case, it does mean that the press is no longer The Fourth Estate watchdog that the public need in order for democracy to be strengthened. If there is no Fourth Estate-type watchdog then the government can do what it likes, regardless of public opinion expressed through the press and wider mass media. To answer the question, ‘what role does the press play today?’ Kronig (2004) states ‘political and media power have been merging in an unprecedented way.’
This suggests the all too ‘cosy’ relationship that politics and media is beginning to have. This relationship means that the idea of the Fourth Estate cannot work while politics and media work together. The idea of the Fourth Estate is supposed to be independent, objective and the proverbial eyes of the public watching over those in power for any sign of wrongdoing. However this idea seems to have all but disappeared and therefore perhaps the role the press plays today is that of the governments PR machine. With reference to the question, the previous points fully propose that the concept behind the term ‘The Fourth Estate’ is no longer useful for understanding the press today due to the gradual merging of the ‘watchdog’ and the state.
When discussing the historic emergence of The Fourth Estate, leading to the question ‘to what extent is this term still useful for understanding the role of the press today?’ it is also important to question whether the roles of the watchdog and the government have reversed in that the government is now a watchdog of the press, for instance the Leveson Enquiry; whether the press and the government are both watchdogs over each other, which would make a valid argument; and whether the former watchdog and representation of The Fourth Estate, the press, along with the state are working together in order to fool the public into  believing that this country is still democratic and that the media is still the eyes and ears of the people, which would be a hugely contentious argument to make.
In conclusion the historical emergence of the concept of The Fourth Estate is vital when it comes to the strengthening, or introduction in some places, of democracy. The impact that the idea of a public ‘watchdog’ keeping a close eye on the government and those in power as well as informing the public politically and intellectually has been huge in the democratic world. Despite this, evidence suggests that along with the press acting as The Fourth Estate, democracy is on the downfall because of a lack of transparency and accountability in government. This is down in part to the merging of government and media, which includes the press, and leads to questions regarding whether we still have a free press or whether it is simply a tool to be used by political parties and the government as a PR machine in the guise of an independent, impartial watchdog. All of the previous points lead to the conclusion that the term ‘The Fourth Estate’ is not useful in understanding the role of the press today as it has been corrupted by power and those who are in powerful positions instead of being the catalyst for the strengthening of democracy as the eyes, ears and voice of the people.


References
Boffey, D. 2012. David Cameron put on the spot by cosy texts to Rebekah Brooks. The Guardian. [online]. November 4th. Available from: The Guardian Newspaper on the World Wide Web: http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2012/nov/04/david-cameron-texts-rebekah-brooks [Accessed 11th January 2014].
Coronel, S. 2003. The Role of the Media in Deepening Democracy. [online]. unpan.org. Available from: unpan1.un.org/intradoc/groups/public/documents/un/unpan010194.pdf [Accessed 11th January 2014].
Gentzkow, M., Glaeser, E., Goldin, C. 2004. The Rise of The Fourth Estate: Why newspapers became informative and why it mattered. National Bureau of Economic Research. 1(1): pp.1-54.
Kronig, J. 2004. Politics and the Media. Progressive Politics. Vol. 3.2. pp 56-63.
Lewis, J., Williams, A., Franklin, B. 2008. A Compromised Fourth Estate? Journalism Studies. 9(1): pp.1-20.
Norris, P. 2008. The Fourth Estate. Driving Democracy. Cambridge University Press. 2008. pp.1-29. [online]. Available from: www.hks.harvard.edu/fs/pnorris/Acrobat/.../Chapter%208.pdf [Accessed 11th January 2014].

 



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