The phrase “Fourth Estate??? is most commonly attributed to Edmund Burke, a result of Thomas Carlyle’s assertion in Heroes and Hero Worship that ‘Burke said that there were three estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than them all.‘ Actually, there is no evidence that Burke ever said this, and the phrase has since been attributed to many others. What is not in dispute if that the phrase refers to the special position of the press in a free country. Holding power accountable, unearthing truth in the name of the people, the press are assumed to hold a privileged place in society. The other three estates were clergy, nobility and the commons – the press kept a watchful eye on them all. Hence when a journalist refuses to name sources before a court, though he is clearly guilty of contempt, he cites his public interest role, and is often widely praised for his refusal.
This is very noble and high-minded, and it bears almost no relation to what I read over the weekend as part of Paper Round. On Saturday, I read several newspapers cover to cover, and I can count on one hand the number of stories that were not fed directly to the journalist by a PR person, in whose obvious interest it was to see the story appear in print. I saw on the front page of a reputable national newspaper an advertisement only half-heartedly disguised as story. I saw, on the same front page, a headline which implied the exact opposite of what was later revealed in the story to have been the truth.
On Sunday, I was a little more cheered. One particular newspaper was composed predominantly of actual journalism, albeit that most of those stories were somewhat lightweight. Another paper, though woefully reliant on second-hand news and PR material, took the gold star by running several excellent stories based on actual investigative reporting, on topics that could be said to be of vital public interest. The heroes and villains will be named in due course, once I’ve ploughed through the heap of newsprint by my desk, scrawled with incredulous exclamation and question marks, and such tags as “info-tainment???, “hot babes??? and “lifestyles of the rich and famous???. In the meantime, a few conclusions;
World news, in the internet era, is a waste of newsprint. We no longer need to wait for the Washington Correspondent to tell us about the US Mid-term elections, because we’ve already read the New York Times and Washington Post online, and perhaps viewed the election results coverage on any one of an array of television sources. Give us some analysis, or an angle we haven’t yet seen, or else don’t bother.
Most of what appears in a given issue of a newspaper is not news. It could just as easily have appeared a week earlier or a week later, had those providing the material (the PR people) chosen to make the story happen then instead.
Sunday newspapers have all week to generate content, and usually have a decent harvest of stories generated by the old-fashioned method of journalism. The daily papers print almost nothing that has not fallen (or rather been carefully placed) into their laps. They are, I firmly believe, a disgrace.
Ireland’s print press appears to act only as a message board, relaying to readers the contents of press releases from various interests, public and private, and treating stories only as ballast for the advertising which is its real raison d’etre. If that is now the role of newspapers, well and good, but I won’t be paying any money for them. If their role is to act as a corrective to the powers at large in the nation; to tell the reader things he should know, but might not otherwise learn; to be, in fact, a Fourth Estate, then they are nothing short of a travesty.