Tuesday, 30 August 2011


In the middle of the 19th century, people began referring to the press as a fourth estate, referencing the fact that most parliaments had an area set aside specifically for the press, and recognising that the press was a distinct group within civil society. Some credit the origin of the term to Edmund Burke, who is said to have referenced the fourth estate when discussing the French Revolution, and Thomas Carlyle, a 19th century thinker.

Thomas Carlyle writing about the first estate in 1841 pointed out that the press had a powerful role in parliamentary procedure, shaping the will of the people and influencing the outcome of votes among the government, as well. Carlyle also argued that the press was an important part of a democratic society, saying that writing gives people “a tongue which others will listen to.”

The guarantee of freedom of expression and information is recognized as a basic human right in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN in 1948, the European Convention on Human Rights. Article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
The positive relationship between the growth of the free press and the process of democratisation is thought to be reciprocal. The core claim is that, in the first stage, the initial transition from autocracy opens up the state control of the media to private ownership, diffuses access, and reduces official censorship and government control of information. Once media liberalisation has commenced, in the second stage democratic consolidation is strengthened where journalists in independent newspapers, radio and television stations facilitate greater transparency and accountability in governance, by serving in their watch-dog roles to deter corruption and malfeasance, as well as providing a civic forum for multiple voices in public debate, and highlighting problems to inform the policy agenda.

Through this process, numerous observers have emphasized that a free press is valuable for democracy, for good governance, and for human development. This perspective is exemplified by Amartya Sen’s famous argument that in independent and democratic countries, the free press encourages government responsiveness to public concerns, by highlighting cases of famine and natural disasters. “...in the terrible history of famines in the world, no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent and democratic country with a relatively free press.”

The independent media, Sen suggests, enhances the voice of poor people and generates more informed choices about economic needs and priorities echoed these sentiments when he was the president of the World Bank: “A free press is not a luxury. A free press is at the absolute core of equitable development, because if you cannot enfranchise poor people, if they do not have a right to expression, if there is no searchlight on corruption and inequitable practices, you cannot build the public consensus needed to bring about change.”

The Fourth Estate brought us news, presented opinions and often played the role of the peoples guardian, when it found abuse of power in one of the three branches of government. While not always completely objective, journalists are human, we expected truth, and at the very least we demanded a dearth of ideological paddling of particular political creeds.

As with business consolidations driven by economies of scale and profit so too with the Fourth Estate. 

The past twenty years have seen enormous consolidations occur at alarming rates throughout the corporate landscape. These machines are profitable cogs for their masters. Journalistic freedom, budget constraints have meant that little research now occurs within the fourth estate as journalists prefer their news "ready made."

Former British politician and commentator Bryan Gould has been thinking about this recently in relation to our Fourth Estate's seeming perpetual homage at the feet of John Key:

There are times when it seems that nothing can happen, either internationally or domestically, so far as our media are concerned, unless the Prime Minister is on hand to comment on it or otherwise certify by his presence that it is indeed news. He seems to serve the roles, variously, of national leader, moral guide, social commentator, sports journalist, pub drinking companion, comedian - and even politician. There is scarcely a television news bulletin which does not feature his appearance at some point in one or other of these roles.

There are dangers for democracy opines Mr Gould:

The consequences for our political system are more extensive than may be thought. It is not just members of the government who suffer from being denied a voice in the media. In a properly functioning democracy, politicians from all sides need to feel that they have a well-tried and reliable way of getting heard.

If that access is available only occasionally, both sides of the transaction get used to doing without it. Expectations are lowered. Understandings of what might be newsworthy are adversely affected by both media and politicians. Those who find that they are not regarded as worth listening to give up trying.

My own experience in the year or two before a general election in Britain was that I would be involved almost daily in a press conference - not just commenting on the news but trying to set the agenda and make the news as well. Both media and politicians got used to this. The result was a rich and varied diet of political news and views that helped to promote a healthy political climate.

With three months to go before our own election, I look in vain for that kind of debate. The deficiency is likely to get worse during the World Cup. It is not good enough to say that opposition politicians are not heard because they have nothing to say. How do we know?

No one can blame John Key for using his charm and likeability to the best advantage. The concern is whether the media have become so used to it that they are now constrained by it as well.

No one needs persuading of John Key’s value to his party and government, and it is inevitable and right that he should play a major part. But a strong and effective government needs more than a single foundation stone. The Prime Minister’s dominance, paradoxically, weakens his government and – by constraining the scope of the political debate - diminishes our democracy as well.

Labour leader Phil Goff has complained about policy debate not getting any sensible traction in the media at the moment. He is right. With our current journalists it appears that it is simply not their job to delve, probe or question, ploughing for truth, while well armed with information. It may be some time before we recover from the lack of analysis into the ideological games that are currently being played National Party politicians manipulating the levers of influence. Not one member of the Key Administration has been purposefully brought to task by anyone in the mainstream media. We have not benefitted from any vigorous investigative reporting on the creation of the financial train wreck created by unfettered free market greed and exacerbated by a Government who thinks the cure for this free market malaise is a further dose of the free market with a privitisation agenda. Where are our 21st Century versions of Brian Edwards, Ian Fraser or the crusading Pat Booth? The few who attempt such efforts are independent, and considered marginal. Their labours bear little fruit. If the mainstream media doesn’t pick up the story, its likelihood of gaining traction is minimal at best.

We need to clamor for a refurbishing of the fourth pillar so necessary in the sustenance of a healthy democracy. Currently any view opposite to that of the Government is not getting fair analysis from our mainstream media. Worse still the policies being pursued by the Government are receiving little analysis at all. It appears that far from an objective reporting of news, our media is actually partisan in shaping it and the risk is that our democracy will be the worse for it.

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