A mix of self-promotion and definitional flexibility has enabled the notion of the news media as the fourth estate to endure.
The concept of the press fulfilling an autonomous role in the political system, as a representative of the people and independent of political or commercial power, has evolved with national variations depending on constitutional, legal, commercial and regulatory conventions. In the United States, the concept was embodied in the First Amendment to the US Constitution, passed in 1791, which prohibited laws that abridged freedom of speech or inhibited freedom of the press. In the Australian colonies, there was no such constitutional protection, but many newspapers were first published when the notion of the fourth estate was taking hold in England.
Rod Kirkpatrick’s research shows that these ideals were embodied in the founding principles of many newspapers published in the colonies, which also helped to define and promote new regions and settlements. In colonial society, with limited franchise and no system of representative local government, newspapers sought to fulfil roles that have subsequently been subsumed by other institutions. A review of inaugural editorials reveals that many colonial newspapers adopted an explicit fourth estate framework. In these small settlements, editors sought to maximise readership by being independent, although others were more overtly aligned with landholders and others with power, which weakened claims to autonomy and representing the people.
Even at this time, the tension between the commercial and public interests of the newspaper was evident: financial success could ensure independence but also increase the pressure to be more closely aligned with powerful interests.
The ideal of the fourth estate has endured—indeed, the term is often used as shorthand for the news media. However, the notion of the news media fulfilling an autonomous, representative, public role that transcends its commercial obligations has been undermined by the self-interested power and influence of the industry, ethical failures, the creation of a wide range of formal regulatory and monitory institutions, and the growth of informal social media. Nonetheless, it retains an important place in the rationale of the news media, the self-definition of editors and journalists and the expectations of the public.
Unlike the other formal institutions of representative democracies, elected parliaments and independent judiciaries, the press always had one foot in politics and the other in commerce. At a time of limited suffrage and growing literacy, the press became the self-appointed voice of the people, and scrutiniser of politicians and official behaviour.
The brilliance of this model was that the commercial success that came from sales and advertising underwrote the cost of news-gathering. This helped ensure both political independence and influence. The result was a myth that helped maximise commercial returns.
The tension in this role has been long recognised, as Rupert Murdoch noted in 1961, when he was a fledgling newspaper owner: ‘Unless we can return to the principles of public service we will lose our claim to be the Fourth Estate.’ Decades later, as the owner of one of the largest media empires in the world, Murdoch still cynically claimed the role of overseeing official behaviour and giving voice to the concerns of the people, but in practice the principles of public service were more often framed by a partisan agenda, thought to coincide with Murdoch’s personal views. The unapologetic political agenda of some of News Corp’s outlets—most notably the Fox Network in the United States—has delivered strong commercial returns, although its impact on public debate and the political system is a matter of dispute.
In the middle years of the 20th century, the dominance of the social responsibility model shaped the behaviour of the press, television and radio. In a mass media environment, the commercial requirement to maximise audience by not offending combined with antipathy to regulatory oversight by the state to encourage professionalisation of journalism and a methodology that expected objectivity, accuracy, fairness and impartiality. In this context, journalists and editors actively pursued investigative reporting, seeking to reveal corruption, dishonesty and malfeasance as independent representatives of the people. This became an important element of the self-definition of the commercial news media and public broadcasters—most notably the ABC, which particularly pursued investigative journalism as a manifestation of a fourth estate role.
The ability of the traditional news media to fulfil the fourth estate role has been weakened by structural changes that have threatened the economic viability of the industry. As a result, the resources available for providing a comprehensive record and undertaking major investigations have diminished. The proliferation of other institutions with a monitory role has also professionalised the ‘watchdog’ role once undertaken informally by the press as the fourth estate. As John Keane has documented, the rise of monitory democracy in the later years of the 20th century has meant that the role once informally undertaken by the news media has been supplemented by a wide range of regulatory, oversight and investigative agencies. An important development that has weakened the role of the traditional news media as a quasi-institution is the internet, which has democratised political and social communication, and demonstrated the weakness of the professionalisation of journalism.
The legitimacy of the commercial media’s right in the 21st century to continue to exercise oversight has not only been challenged by self-interested behaviour, but by the collapse of the business model that effectively financed the legitimacy and influence of this role. As the mass media of the 20th century gives way to the connected and distributed social media model of the 21st, the capacity of traditional news media to retain this quasi-institutional role is under an assault from which it is unlikely to recover—although a ‘fifth estate’ of always-on social media may replace it.
The notion that power needs to be scrutinised may endure, but it is likely to be a task undertaken by a much larger group of people and institutions.
REFs: J. Keane, The Life and Death of Democracy (2009); R. Kirkpatrick, ‘Shield of the People? The Provincial Press and the Fourth Estate’, Australian Journalism Review, 20(1) (1998); J. Schultz, Reviving the Fourth Estate (1998).