The failure of the Fourth Estate

Posted on

The behaviour of the Murdoch press – behaviour I do believe was known about by senior officials and even maybe by the proprietor – and which should have been known about by them if it wasn’t, making them culpable in either case – has been, as all agree, despicable. I don’t need to reiterate that.

But I do want to make a different point. This failure and the failure of almost all the media to engage with it – with the notable, honourable and proud exception of the Guardian – has been a failure of the Fourth Estate.

Wikipedia is pretty good on this, saying:

The concept of the Fourth Estate (or fourth estate) is a societal or political force or institution whose influence is not consistently or officially recognised. It now most commonly refers to the news media; especially print journalism. Thomas Carlyle attributed the origin of the term to Edmund Burke, who used it in a parliamentary debate in 1787 on the opening up of press reporting of the House of Commons of the United Kingdom. Earlier writers have applied the term to lawyers, to the queen of England (acting as a free agent, independent of the king), and to the proletariat.

The term in current use is now appropriated to the Press, with the earliest use in this sense described by Thomas Carlyle in his book On Heroes and Hero Worship:

Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.

In Burke’s 1787 coining he would have been making reference to the traditional three estates of Parliament: The Lords Spiritual, the Lords Temporal and the Commons.

In its critical role of holding the first three estates to account the press has had a fundamentla role in our democracy.

Murdoch has failed in that role. He’s bullied the first three estates rather than hold them to account. And his papers have now been shown  to have complete contempt for the law.  That does, of course, necessarily mean that he should not be allowed to buy Sky.  The Tories will rue the day if they let him do so:   you can see the posters at the next general election if that  were to happen:

Vote Cameron: the man who supports phone hackers

But again,  that’s not my real point.  My real point is that  however angry people like Peter Oborne are,  the vast majority of the press have not stood up against Murdoch, and they have not been appropriate supporters of democracy, as they should have been.  It’s not just Murdoch who has failed here:  the Guardian excepted there has been a collective failure of the press and indeed in very many ways of the BBC as well,  all of whom collectively have been far too willing to accept Murdoch’s line  when the evidence that abuse was going on existed.

The Fourth Estate has a job to do,  but it needs to be as courageous as the state that  I desire if it is to do that job properly.  So by all means let’s castigate Murdoch  and avoid his products ( just as I am ignoring calls from his journalists right now)  but let’s make sure we demand appropriate standards from the rest of the press as well.