Thomas Carlyle wrote that Edmund Burke had said, in the British Parliament, “There are Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sit a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”
That was in 1787. The three estates were The Lords Spiritual, The Lords Temporal and the Commons. Clergy, nobility, and representatives of the common folk.
Carlyle wrote, in 1837, in his book French Revolution, “A Fourth Estate, of Able Editors, springs up; increases and multiplies, irrepressible, incalculable.” When speaking of estates in a French context, Carlyle referred to the States-General: the church, the nobility, and the townsmen or citizenry.
In 1858 Thomas Macknight said Burke had not come up with the idea of the press being an additional “estate” governing the nation, but had acknowledged what was already understood.
Thomas Macauley wrote, 30 years earlier, “The gallery in which the reporters sit has become a fourth estate of the realm.”
Oscar Wilde thought the press represented another function in society. He wrote, in 1891, “In old days men had the rack. Now they have the Press. That is an improvement, certainly. But it is still very bad, and wrong, and demoralizing. Somebody—was it Burke?—called journalism the fourth estate. That was true at the time no doubt. But at the present moment it is the only estate. It has eaten up the other three. The Lords Temporal say nothing, the Lords Spiritual have nothing to say, and the House of Commons has nothing to say and says it. We are dominated by Journalism.”
Wikipedia informs us that in our time and country, “fourth estate” is used to emphasize the independence of the press, and that the phrase tells us that the press is not free of government control.
What would Burke and Carlyle and Macknight, Macauley and Wilde have to say about Rupert Murdoch, and the spectacle of this publishing titan testifying before the Parliament concerning the thuggish practices of News of the World? Hacking into phones, including that of a young victim of abduction?
Was the Murdoch press, with its depraved standards, capable of keeping an eye on government, on behalf of the public? Prime Minister David Cameron? Fat chance. News of the World execs have had a way of becoming high officials in Cameron’s government. Cameron and Murdoch have been great chums.
The Guardian uncovered some of the mess. So when one part of the Fourth Estate betrays its trust, another part of it may do what the entire institution should: expose the corruption.
Aren’t we glad that stuff happens in England, whereas, in this side of the pond—
Oh, wait. Isn’t it Rupert Murdoch and company that owns Fox News? Wow! Is that hard hitting journalism or what! Would they become involved in anything seamy? Would they get involved in unseemly or scurrilous tactics? This is America, and over here the media hew to the standard of even-handedness.
The media go to great lengths to provide balance, as when they explain that police found the dismembered body of a child in a suspect’s apartment, where he lives alone, and they have surveillance video of the little boy being taken by the suspect, but they are careful to add that the suspect is said to be mildly retarded and he is a butcher by trade, and if it turns out that he filleted this child, at least it is thought to be the first time he used his professional skills on a human. Balance.
Fox news wouldn’t run roughshod over people’s rights or play fast and loose with the truth. It was only Fox’s film production arm, operating in our community two years past, and their security contractor, that falsely told hundreds of locals that the locals had no right to take photos of the production company or any of its activities. If the locals did so, said the rent-a-cops, their cell phones or cameras would be confiscated and the photos deleted.
That was all bullying and bluster. The locals had a right to take photos so long as they did not impede production or get into a shot. When the St. Moritz security people (mostly inexperienced, recruited locally, and paid poorly and slowly) met with resistance, a common assertion was that they had “control” of a given area, granted by the borough. Untrue.
Would the news branch of Fox resort to bullying and bluster? Does Geico use clever commercials?
Anyhow, as Murdoch told the Parliament, the besmirched news organization is in the best position to clean itself up. Of course. And the Nixon administration was in the best position to get to the bottom of the Watergate cover-up.
Speaking of Watergate, Carl Bernstein recent wrote in Newsweek, “Hugely powerful institutions can no more be trusted to investigate themselves than an individual can reliably be the judge in his own case. Left to their own devices, the organization’s principals will cover up transgressions and conceal the truth. That’s why a democratic society needs a genuinely free, independent, and responsible press to dig deep—and then even deeper.
“The alternative is a culture of frivolousness, corruption and superficiality, all the way down.”
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