In a speech to the US Federal Trade Commission in 2009, Rupert Murdoch stated that: “From the beginning, newspapers have prospered for one reason: the trust that comes from representing their readers’ interests and giving them the news that’s important to them. That means covering the communities where they live […] exposing government or business corruption […] and standing up to the rich and powerful”. And in the same year, his son James, giving the MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival, argued that: “Great journalism does not get enough credit in our society, but it holds the powerful to account and plays a vital part in a functioning democracy”.
By this token, of course, newspapers should be spending a vast amount of their time “exposing”, “holding to account” and “standing up to” the Murdoch empire, since it is one of the richest and most powerful forces in the land. However, in the UK newspaper industry, dog doesn’t generally eat dog, and it took Murdoch’s announcement that he wished his company NewsCorp to be the sole owner of BSkyB to shock papers like the Mail and Telegraph into joining the Guardian – hitherto the only national newspaper consistently to have warned of the dangers of Murdoch’s rapacious expansionism – in calling for the process to be halted. Were the takeover to be allowed, the vast riches which would fall into Murdoch’s lap would enable him to engage in forms of predatory pricing and promotion which could well wipe some of his print rivals right off the map. This may well explain these newspapers’ belated conversion to the anti-Murdoch cause – having, for example, largely ignored the News of the World phone-hacking scandal, until eventually debate about it in parliament more or less forced it onto their news agenda.
When those whose actions have resulted in a significant diminution of serious journalism in Britain’s national newspapers (and threaten to do the same for television) pose as stout defenders of the ideal of the Fourth Estate, it is surely high time to question the continuing usefulness of the term as a description of the British national press. But before we do so, let’s just remind ourselves briefly what it means.
The reality gap
The idea of the press as a “Fourth Estate” came to prominence during the nineteenth century. In 1837 Robert Carlyle referred to “A Fourth Estate of Noble Editors” in The French Revolution: A History, and in On Heroes and Hero Worship (1841) stated that “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”. Carlyle continued: “Literature is our Parliament too. Printing, which comes necessarily out of Writing, I say often, is equivalent to Democracy. Invent Writing, Democracy is inevitable.” One of the chief exponents of the idea was The Times leader writer, Henry Reeve, who in 1855 wrote that:
In a country where the people – i.e. the great mass of the educated classes – govern, where they take that ceaseless and paramount interest in public affairs which is at once the inseparable symptom and the surest safeguard of political and civil liberty, where, in a word, they are participating citizens, not passive subjects, of the State, it is of the most essential consequence that they should be furnished from day to day with the materials required for informing their minds and enlightening their judgment.
In spite of all the changes undergone by the press since Burke and Reeve’s time, this idea of journalism as a Fourth Estate has survived remarkably unscathed into the twenty-first century. For example, it clearly underpins the definitions of journalism’s tasks outlined by Independent journalist David Randall, namely to:
– Discover and publish information that replaces rumour and speculation.
– Resist or evade government controls.
– Inform, and so empower, voters.
– Subvert those whose authority relies on a lack of public information.
– Scrutinize the action and inaction of governments, elected representatives and public services.
– Scrutinize businesses, their treatment of workers and customers, and the quality of their products.
– Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, providing a voice for those who cannot normally be heard in public.
– Hold up a mirror to society, reflecting its virtues and vices and also debunking its cherished myths.
– Ensure that justice is done, is seen to be done and investigations carried out where this is not so.
– Promote the free exchange of ideas, especially by providing a platform for those with philosophies alternative to the prevailing ones.
From these definitions we can tease out a number of underlying assumptions about the purposes which journalism as the Fourth Estate is supposed to serve, namely that journalism
– Is about the quest for truth, investigating, getting at the facts, clarifying complex issues and uncovering attempts to manipulate or mislead the public.
– Acts as a watchdog, protecting the public interest and scrutinizing the behaviour of the rich and powerful so as to keep them accountable to the public.
– Provides members of society with the information they need as citizens in order to take their full part in democratic debate and decision making, not simply at elections but at all times.
– Is conducted independently of government and other powerful institutions.
– Is an activity conducted independently of economic pressures.
Now, these are absolutely admirable ideals. The only problem is that they paint journalism as it no doubt should be but so far fail to account for what is to be found in the bulk of the UK’s national daily press as to constitute a utopian fantasy. The point is easily proved: go out and buy the day’s supply of red-top and mid-market tabloids and then check their contents against Randall’s list. Alternatively, if you just can’t bear to do so, consider this very recent characterization of the British national press from a noted journalist:
A complete submission to the idea that news is entertainment and entertainment is news; a pack mentality and the idea that only things which are already being covered in the media are worth covering; a general retreat from the principles of serious journalism, investigative journalism, and a horror of complicated ideas; amnesia; a default setting to knee-jerk populism.
Or read the journalist Nick Davies’ excoriation of the current state of his trade, Flat Earth News, noting in particular his judgement that newspaper stories are “internally constructed in order to sell. The failure to provide context has multiplied and divided into a preference for human interest over issue; for the concrete over the abstract; for event rather than process; for the current over the historic; for simplicity rather than complexity; for certainty rather than doubt”. In his view, the result is a pattern of distortion so consistent that it amounts to a bias against truth.
But what of such recent journalistic triumphs as the Telegraph‘s exposure of the MPs’ expenses scandal, the Guardian‘s 87 battles over Trafigura and Barclays, and its role in the Wikileaks affair? Are these not shining examples of Fourth Estate journalism? Yes, of course they are. But consider the following hard facts. According to the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC), total national daily newspaper circulation in November 2010 was 9,540,993, of which the red-top and mid-market tabloids accounted for 7,573,003. In other words, papers in which “soft” news predominates, and in which “hard” news tends to be fatally polluted and compromised by editorialising, account for the vast majority of national daily circulation. Furthermore, between May 2009 and June 2010 (during the period in which it exposed the MPs’ expenses scandal) the Telegraph suffered a year-on-year drop in circulation of 16.49 per cent; those newspapers whose coverage of serious news is fullest also registered falls: the Guardian (10.47 per cent), The Times (12.82 per cent) and the Independent (4.85 per cent). In the past fiscal year, the Guardian and Observer lost over £60m, (euro 70.3m) and in 2009 The Times and The Sunday Times £87.7m (euro 102.8m). Meanwhile the papers which registered the lowest falls in circulation were the red-top tabloids the Sun (1.61 per cent) and the Star (2.11 per cent). In other words, the majority of national newspapers circulating in the UK today play a negligible, and quite possibly a negative, role in the provision of public enlightenment, and those which attempt to fulfil such a purpose are seeing a particularly serious decline in their readership. Such a state of affairs could be said to represent a crisis for democracy.
Or it could be dismissed as simply an elitist, “Guardianista” viewpoint. In which case, consider a few more hard figures. The last edition of the Independent Television Commission/Broadcasting Standards Commission annual publication The Public’s View, published in 2002, reported that for 70 per cent of respondents, television was their most trusted source of UK news, with newspapers scoring a mere 6 per cent. Research carried out for the successor body, Ofcom, and published in 2006 in the report New News, Future News showed that 65 per cent of respondents cited television as the main platform which they used to access news, as opposed to 14 per cent for newspapers. And finally, a YouGov poll carried out in March 2008 for the British Journalism Review showed that 44 per cent of the public trust journalists on up-market newspapers to tell the truth. The equivalent figure for journalists on mid-market newspapers is 19 per cent, and for journalists on the red-tops 15 per cent. By comparison, 87 per cent of people trust family doctors to tell the truth, 76 per cent trust teachers and 71 per cent trust local policemen. Moreover, this poll shows not only low levels of trust in press journalism, but a significant decline in trust over the preceding five years. In 2003, 65 per cent of people trusted journalists on up-market papers to tell the truth, but, as noted above, by March 2008 this had dropped to 44 per cent. Over the same period the percentage of people who trust journalists on mid-market papers dropped from 36 per cent to 18 per cent. The figure for red-top newspapers stayed close to the bottom of the table, although it rose very slightly from 14 per cent to 15 per cent, over this five year period. In 2008, 49 per cent of newspaper readers questioned stated that they did not trust journalists on up-market papers, with the percentages rising to 75 per cent in the case of mid-market journalists and 83 per cent in the case of red-top journalists. However, what is particularly significant is that 32 per cent of readers of up-market papers professed not to trust the journalists who worked for these papers, whilst 65 per cent of readers of mid-market papers and 68 per cent of readers of red-top tabloids expressed low levels of trust in the journalism which they chose to read.
Admittedly, this decline in trust in print journalism needs to be seen in the context of a general decline in trust in many professions; however, for journalists of up-market and mid-market papers, the decline has been faster than in the case of other professions. And as Steven Barnett points out: “For an occupation that is supposed to deal in truth, and for which accuracy lies at the heart of the various codes of professional conduct, the scale and speed of the decline is a serious issue.”
It is also worth pointing out that the British trust their national newspapers far less than any other Europeans trust theirs. Thus research carried out in October/November 2009 and published in Eurobarometer 72, Public Opinion in the European Union, showed that on average 42 per cent of members of EU states tend to trust the press. Only 18 per cent of UK respondents shared this view. The next lowest figure was for Hungary, with 26 per cent, but it’s particularly instructive to compare the UK figure with those for Luxembourg (highest at 65 per cent), followed by Portugal (59 per cent) and the Czech Republic (58 per cent). Given his remarks about trust quoted at the start of this piece, perhaps someone should tell Rupert Murdoch. Doubtless, however, he would put these high levels of trust down to the gullibility and feebleness of our European neighbours.
That the dominant style of press journalism in Britain is very different from that to be found in other EU countries can be proved simply by visiting any continental newsstand and flicking through the daily newspaper titles on offer. In particular, the UK has a far stronger national press than do many of our European neighbours, where local and regional papers tend to predominate. Second, the predominant ideological tone of the UK press is decidedly and, in many cases, stridently, illiberal, compared to the predominantly liberal tone of the national press in most EU countries. This is not, of course, to deny that numerous examples of illiberal papers can be found there – for example Bild in Germany and Kronen Zeitung in Austria. Third, the UK press operates entirely according to “free-market” principles, which means not simply that there are no forms of subsidy or distribution guarantee for low-circulation papers, but also that there is ferocious competition for both readers and advertisers within each of the three market segments – red-top, mid-market tabloid and up-market. Significantly, the competition for readers is at its most intense in the two tabloid sectors, which depend on readers for about 60 per cent of their revenue, with advertising making up the other 40 per cent; the percentages are reversed in the up-market papers.
The medium and the market
The manner in which unregulated market forces impact on the national daily press in the UK are almost wholly destructive of Fourth Estate principles. In spite of a vast, and indeed ever-growing, amount of evidence to the contrary, it is still an accepted principle of “free market” dogma – to give it its correct name – that unregulated competition leads to higher quality, more choice and lower prices. What it actually leads to, however, is oligopoly and thence monopoly, and the domination of the market by goods and services with mass appeal – what, to adapt John Stuart Mill, we might call the tyranny of majority tastes. Left to its own devices, the market may deliver what many people want much of the time, but is far less effective at delivering what many people want some of the time, and even worse at delivering what minorities of one kind or another want a good deal of the time. This is particularly true in the case of fully commercialized media – which is why, in the UK and other European countries, one part of the media, namely broadcasting, has not been left to the tender mercies of market forces but has been treated as a form of public service. However, if the apostles of “de-regulation”, such as Rupert Murdoch, have their way in the UK, British broadcasting will soon be following in the footsteps of the national press.
In such a situation, threats to media freedom in general and to the journalistic ideals of the Fourth Estate in particular stem less from the excessive use of state power, although this should not be discounted, than from the unregulated growth of the media qua large-scale commercial organisations. As John Keane pointed out remarkably presciently at the start of the 1990s:
Historically, the proponents of “liberty of the press” directed their criticisms mainly against the state regulation of market-based communications media. Today, by contrast, friends of “liberty of the press” must recognize that communications markets restrict freedom of communication by generating barriers to entry, monopoly and restrictions upon choice, and by shifting the prevailing definition of information from that of a public good to that of a privately appropriable commodity. (emphasis in original).
Or as another early critic of the malign role of market forces in the field of the media put it: “A laissez-faire approach to economic activity is not necessarily the best guarantor of freedom of expression, since an unregulated market may develop in a way that effectively reduces diversity and limits the capacity of most individuals to make their views heard.” In other words, unregulated market competition produces market censorship.
It is now a truism that information has become a commodity, indeed one of the most valuable commodities. Less well understood, however, is the impact this has had on journalism. We hear much about “dumbing down”, “infotainment”, “tabloidization” and “market driven journalism”, but all too often it appears as if it is the stupidity of the public which is largely to blame for this state of affairs, as opposed to it being an integral part of the wholesale commodification of information and culture – what Manuel Castells calls “info-capitalism”. One of the most acute diagnoses of this state of affairs has been provided by the veteran journalist Neil Hickey, and although it refers specifically to the US, much of what it says about print journalism and the reasons for its abandonment of the ideals of the Fourth Estate, is, unfortunately, all too applicable to the UK’s national press:
A new era has dawned in American journalism. A New York Times editor describes its hallmark: “A massively increased sensitivity to all things financial” As competition grows ever more ferocious; as the audience continues to drift away from traditional news sources, both print and television; as the public’s confidence in news organizations and news people continues to decline; as mainstream print and TV news outlets purvey more “lifestyle” stories, trivia, scandal, celebrity gossip, sensational crime, sex in high places, and tabloidism at the expense of serious news in a cynical effort to maximize readership and viewership; as editors collude ever more willingly with marketers, promotion “experts”, and advertisers, thus ceding a portion of their sacred editorial trust; as editors shrink from tough coverage of major advertisers lest they jeopardize ad revenue; as news holes grow smaller in column inches to cosmeticize the bottom line; as news executives cut muscle and sinew from budgets to satisfy their corporate overseers’ demands for higher profit margins each year; as top managers fail to reinvest profits in staff training, investigative reports, salaries, plant, and equipment – then the broadly-felt consequence of those factors and many others, collectively, is a diminished and deracinated journalism of a sort that hasn’t been seen in this country until now and which, if it persists, will be a fatal erosion of the ancient bond between journalists and the public.
In the UK context, very similar sentiments inform Davies’ Flat Earth News, in which he sardonically lays out the “rules of production” for journalism in the age of info-capitalism, the sixth of which is “Give them what they want”, and whose attendant ethos is “if we can sell it, we’ll tell it”.
Since blaming public taste is the usual response of those accused of abandoning the ideals of the Fourth Estate, it’s worth quoting Reuven Frank, a former president of NBC News, on this particular gambit: “This business of giving people what they want is a dope pusher’s argument. News is something people don’t know they’re interested in until they hear about it. The job of a journalist is to take what’s important and make it interesting.” However, the most magisterial demolition of this particular populist ploy actually occurred in 1960 in the course of a defence of public service broadcasting. Nonetheless, replace the words “television” and “programme” below with the words “press” or “journalism” and the argument still retains its full, and very considerable, force:
No one can say he is giving the public what it wants unless the public knows the whole range of possibilities which television can offer and, from this range, chooses what it wants to see. For a choice is only free if the field of choice is not unnecessarily restricted. The subject matter of television is to be found in the whole scope and variety of human awareness and experience. If viewers – “the public” – are thought of as “the mass audience”, or “the majority”, they will be offered only the average common experience and awareness; the “ordinary”; the commonplace – for what all know and do is, by definition, commonplace. They will be kept unaware of what lies beyond the average of experience; their field of choice will be limited. In time they may come to like only what they know. But it will always be true that, had they been offered a wider choice from which to choose, they might and often would have chosen otherwise, and with greater enjoyment.
In this view of things, “giving the public what it wants” is simply
patronizing and arrogant, in that it claims to know what the public is, but defines it as no more than the mass audience; and in that it claims to know what it wants but limits its choice to the average of experience. In this sense, we reject it utterly. If there is a sense in which it should be used, it is this: what the public wants and what it has the right to get is freedom to choose from the widest range of programme matter. Anything less than that is deprivation.
Illiberalism and Europhobia
Thus far we have seen how the workings of unregulated market forces go a long way to explaining the ever-increasing predominance of “soft” news in the press (and by no means simply in the red-tops and mid-market tabloids, either). However, they also play a key role in maintaining the thoroughly illiberal, stridently populist stance which is the predominant ideological feature of the bulk of Britain’s national daily press, and which, again, severely undercuts its claims to be a Fourth Estate.
For reasons I have explained elsewhere, the UK’s national press has always been heavily skewed to the right ever since its modern version came into being in the second half of the nineteenth century. However, with the three major parties in England now crowded on the centre-right, it is no longer particularly meaningful to group papers in terms of Left/Right or Tory/Labour affinities. A more useful ideological distinction, however, can be made between socially liberal and socially illiberal papers, with the former comprising the Guardian, Independent and Financial Times (if you think the Mirror is a liberal paper, consider its coverage of law ‘n’ order issues, and in particular its vengeful, rabble-rousing coverage of the James Bulger affair, from the end of the original murder trial through to the recent hounding of John Venables), and the latter the rest of the national press. Of course, this is not to claim that socially liberal views never appear in socially illiberal newspapers – Peter Oborne in the Mail and now the Telegraph, for instance – or that socially illiberal views never appear in socially liberal newspapers – thus Dominic Lawson in the Independent – but simply that socially illiberal views predominate in the vast bulk of the national daily press. In no conceivable way does this reflect the balance of ideological forces in the population at large: in November 2010 socially liberal papers accounted for just 848,917 copies in terms of daily circulation, whilst the illiberal rest accounted for 8,692,076, of which 7,573,003 copies were red-top and mid-market tabloids. Compare this with the annual British Social Attitudes survey, which shows that, in spite of the distinct impression given otherwise by the national daily press, socially liberal attitudes far outweigh illiberal ones in the UK.
The populism which is such a salient feature of most of the UK’s national daily press performs both an ideological and economic function: put simply, it sells newspapers by confirming the prejudices of the readership to which it aims to appeal. And by posing as “public opinion” on social matters, it attempts, largely successfully, to terrify governments out of pursuing liberal social policies, particularly where law-and-order is concerned: witness the recent press onslaught on the Home Secretary Kenneth Clarke for daring to oppose the populist mantra that “prison works”. Again, Nick Davies serves as a useful guide to the processes at work here. The seventh of his “rules of production” concerns what he calls “the bias against truth” which extends the purely commercial imperative of rule six – “Give them what they want” – beyond the selection of the stories themselves and into “a series of prejudices about the way that stories are told.” This segues into rule eight “Give them what they want to believe in”, nicely illustrated by former Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan’s observation that “the readers are never wrong. Repulsive, maybe, but never wrong”. Rule nine inevitably follows: “Go with the moral panic.”
The result is a remarkably ugly, demagogic form of journalism which actually inverts many of the values traditionally associated with the notion of the Fourth Estate. As, for example in “Further afflict the already afflicted and affirm the comfortable in their comfort” (although, to be fair, journalists are frequently its most trenchant critics). Take, for example, this very recent cri de coeur from former journalist Will Hutton:
The info-capitalist proprietors – Murdoch, Rothermere and the Barclay Brothers – are happy to peddle the big narrative of a badly governed country with an overblown public sector being carried to the dogs by Eurocrats, liberalism, undue deference to political correctness and moral decay. It is a UK version of a US “tea party” conservatism but in some respects even more insidious. Commonsense views are set against those of lying politicians and untrustworthy technocrats, which are confirmed day by day by the way the news is spun, personalized and angled to support the big narrative. Government scientists cannot be trusted on climate change, swine flu, MMR or anything else. Statistics are twisted to indicate that crime – or teenage pregnancy – is always rising, even when, in reality, it is falling. Immigrants are allegedly swamping the country, ushered in by anti-British officials and politicians. Anyone who says differently is mercilessly hounded.
In the vast bulk of today’s daily press, the beneficence of private enterprise, the “free market” and property ownership are taken for granted and made to appear as entirely “natural” phenomena. Before our eyes the crisis of finance capital – whose coming went largely unnoticed by journalists, with the exception of the Financial Times‘ Gillian Tett and the Guardian‘s Larry Elliott – is transformed by a remarkable ideological conjuring trick into a crisis caused by profligate public spending. At the same time, in all but the minority liberal press, no opportunity is missed to articulate a positive, not to say triumphalist and exclusive, sense of nationhood, one which is strongly tainted by jingoism and xenophobia, and which, from time to time, slips over into outright racism. Enemies without are routinely invoked as a means of dividing “us” from “them”, thus helping to foster a “fortress Britain” mentality and providing justification for the clipping of the coinage of civil liberties in the cause of “national security” and, more recently, the “war on terror”. Meanwhile, the majority of the press has played a major role in aiding and abetting politicians in the creation of an ever-growing horde of “enemies within”, fearsome and threatening “Others” from whom “we” need to be protected at all costs – thus furthering the creation of the surveillance society and the steady drift towards the post social-democratic state.
To which litany one must add the spectacle of the hatred – and that is, indeed, the right word – displayed by every single illiberal newspaper, the Telegraph and The Times most definitely included, towards the European Human Rights Act. Never mind that Article 10 enshrines for the very first time in English law a statutory right to freedom of expression, for which one would have thought that journalists, of all people, would be grateful: the UK press has ensured that “human rights” are dirty words in common parlance and is proud of this achievement. This is partly because the origins of the HRA lie in the hated “Europe”; partly because Article 8, which concerns the right to privacy, threatens the very lifeblood of kiss “n” tell stories in the popular press; but also because these papers are owned and run by conservatives of the most atavistic kind who, as such, loathe the idea of the plebs having any rights at all. This, of course, is why every time the question of rights is raised they immediately stress the importance of responsibilities – blithely unaware, of course, that responsibilities are the corollaries of power, not of rights.
Redefining the Fourth Estate
Which brings us neatly back to the responsibilities of the press enshrined in the Fourth Estate ideal, responsibilities that most UK national daily newspapers have comprehensively abandoned. As a consequence, I would suggest that it is high time that the notion of the British national daily press as a Fourth Estate was itself abandoned. We might, instead, make a distinction between journalism which performs Fourth Estate functions and that which does not, or is, indeed, entirely inimical to the values of the Fourth Estate. In order to distinguish Fourth Estate journalism from other kinds of journalism, it would be helpful have recourse to notions of the public interest. There is no one single definition of this, but there are various useful signposts. For example, the BBC Editorial Guidelines suggest that it includes, but is not confined to, the following:
– Exposing or detecting crime.
– Exposing significantly anti-social behaviour.
– Exposing corruption or injustice.
– Disclosing significant incompetence or negligence.
– Protecting people’s health and safety.
– Preventing people from being misled by some statement or action of an individual or organization.
– Disclosing information that assists people to better comprehend or make decisions on matters of public importance.
Also helpful in this respect are the definitions offered by the Information Commissioner’s Office, which suggest that journalism which is in the public interest
– Furthers the understanding of and participation in the public debate of issues of the day.
– Promotes accountability and transparency by public authorities for decisions taken by them.
– Promotes accountability and transparency in the spending of public money. This would include matters pertaining to private sector delivery of public services.
– Brings to light information affecting public health and public safety.
However, the definitions paraphrased above need to be supplemented by others which stress the importance of scrutinizing the corporate sector as well, not least as so many functions once carried out by the public sector have now been privatized, with many more set to follow. Here a recent report published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism offers a helpful addition: “The public interest […] assumes that citizens in a democratic state have an interest in having access to information about the workings of that state, of its institutions and its officials, both elected and appointed. However, the public interest is not confined to the state’s institutions, but also to private corporations and to voluntary organisations which – as nearly all do – require the public’s trust.”
One of the virtues of defining journalism in terms of whether or not it performs a public interest function is that it cuts across red-top/mid-market/up-market distinctions and thus avoids the charge of elitism, with its suggestions that the up-market press consists only of Fourth Estate journalism, and that such journalism is entirely absent from the red-tops and mid-market tabloids, neither of which is the case. But what it also avoids, crucially, is defining the entire national daily press, or individual national dailies, as the Fourth Estate, requiring instead judgements to be made on specific pieces of journalism. And where this really matters is when journalism comes before the courts, particularly in those cases in which a public interest defence can be offered. Fortunately, the opportunities for such a defence are now more numerous than they used to be, but judges appear to be somewhat divided and indeed confused over what actually constitutes the public interest. A workable definition of public interest journalism is thus not merely of academic interest but could be of immense practical use when defending specific examples of journalism which embody the ideals of the Fourth Estate, should they find themselves brought before the courts. Unfortunately, this happens all too frequently, which serves only to underscore the importance of protecting journalism that genuinely serves the public interest.