The term “fourth estate” has been used to refer to the press since at least the early 1800s. It has become shorth and to denote the role of the public media as a pillar on which the smooth functioning of a democratic society rests, together with the other three estates – legislative, executive, and judiciary. A free press is also a counterbalance to these powers, a watchdog guarding the public interest, and providing a forum for public debate – a public sphere – that underpins the processes of democracy.
Origin Of The Idea
The idea of the fourth estate has a long history, parallel with that of the democratization of political processes, with its origins in the European Enlightenment and the French Revolution. The origin of the term “fourth estate” is attributed to the eighteenth-century English political philosopher and commentator on the Revolution, Edmund Burke, referring to the three sections of the French Estates-General, an assembly consisting of representatives from the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners (in practice, the bourgeoisie), whose gathering in 1789 is said to have paved the way for the French Revolution. The ideas of freedom and democracy enshrined in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, passed by the French National Assembly after the 1789 Revolution, also inspired the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, which, in 1791, proclaimed the sanctity of “the freedom of speech, or of the press.”
The term was given wider currency by the nineteenth-century British historian Thomas Carlyle, another great chronicler of the French Revolution: in his book On heroes, hero-worship and the heroic in history, published in 1841, he wrote:
Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important than they all. It is not a figure of speech, or a witty saying; it is a literal fact. . . . Printing, which comes necessarily out of Writing, I say often, is equivalent to Democracy: invent Writing, Democracy is inevitable. . . . Whoever can speak, speaking now to the whole nation, becomes a power, a branch of government, with inalienable weight in lawmaking, in all acts of authority. It matters not what rank he has, what revenues or garnitures: the requisite thing is that he have a tongue which others will listen to; this and nothing more is requisite. (Carlyle 1841, 141)
In this context, Carlyle was referring to the three estates of the British parliament: the Lords Temporal, the Lords Spiritual, and the House of Commons. The quotation indicates Carlyle’s view of the growing power of newspapers in shaping the public agenda in nineteenth-century Britain as well as acting as a check and balance on the possible abuse of power by the other three pillars of the state. Such champions of liberalism as John Stuart Mill, in his book On liberty, published in 1859, also argued that a liberal press was necessary for “the public good”. According to the German sociologist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas, the wider availability of printing facilities and the resultant reduction in production costs of newspapers stimulated debate in eighteenth-century Britain and led to the emergence of a “bourgeois public sphere,” an arena that was independent of the state and the church, dedicated to rational debate, accessible, and accountable to the citizenry, in which public opinion is formed (Habermas 1989). During the nineteenth century, greater freedom of the press was fought for and achieved in parallel with struggles for parliamentary reform.
The British press had a profound effect on its colonial territories, such as India, where the first regular newspaper, the Bengal Gazette, was founded in 1780 by James Augustus Hicky, an employee of the East India Company, who described the journal as “a weekly political and commercial paper open to all parties, but influenced by none” (quoted in Rau 1974, 10). The Times of India came into existence in 1838, while in 1858 the Straits Times, southeast Asia’s premier newspaper, was started as a daily newspaper from Singapore.
Advances in printing technology meant that newspapers in non-European languages could also be printed and distributed. By the 1870s, more than 140 newspaper titles were in circulation in various Indian languages, representing the linguistic diversity of the subcontinent. Though many of these were launched as commercial enterprises, a growing number were also inspired by a public information and fourth estate function, despite having to operate within undemocratic political systems.
Al-Ahram, the newspaper that has defined Arab journalism for more than a century, was established in Cairo in 1875, while Japan’s most respected newspaper, Asahi Shimbun (“Morning Sun”), was founded in 1890.
A socially responsible agenda was part of the nascent media, and newspapers were also used to articulate the emerging nationalism in many Asian countries.
The Cases Of India And China
Despite strict colonial press laws, which severely curtailed freedom of expression, newspapers played a crucial role in anti-colonial movements, especially in India, where many nationalist leaders were involved in campaigning journalism, most notably Mahatma Gandhi. Writing in Young India (later named Harijan) in 1920, Gandhi, who was to become the “Father of the Nation,” defended the right of newspapers to protest against press laws: “The stoppage of the circulation of potent ideas that may destroy the Government or compel repentance will be the least among the weapons in its armoury. We must therefore devise methods of circulating our ideas unless and until the whole Press becomes fearless, defies consequences and publishes ideas, even when it is in disagreement with them, just for the purpose of securing its freedom” (Gandhi 1970, 59).
The fourth estate function of the media contributed to India’s transformation from a feudal colony to a modern nation-state with a stable, mature, and multiparty democracy. A democratic polity ensured that the government tolerated criticism of its policies on the editorial pages of the national press, providing the space within which the media could engage in critical debates on socio-political and economic issues. More importantly, the proactive and often adversarial role of newspapers contributed to a discourse of social justice through, for example, the evolution of an early-warning system for serious food shortages and thus a preventive mechanism against famine (Ram 1990).
According to the Hindu, India’s most respected newspaper, the long-term Indian press experience, set in larger context, suggests a set of functions that serious newspapers have performed with benefit to society. These are (1) the credible-informational, (2) the critical investigative (“watchdog”), (3) the educational, and (4) the agenda-building functions. Summarizing its own principles, the newspaper said in a special editorial to mark its 125th anniversary, in August 2003: “The Hindu has worked out for itself a set of five principles as a template for socially responsible and ethical journalism. The first is the principle of truth telling. The second principle is that of freedom and independence. The third component of the template is the principle of justice. The fourth principle is that of humaneness. The fifth principle is that of contributing to the social good” (The Hindu 2003, italics in the original).
This fourth estate role of the media was also recognized in China, where the nationalist leader Sun Yat Sen founded Chung-kuo Jih-pao (“China Daily News”) in 1899. In the first decades of the twentieth century, the discourse of Chinese journalism had a marked “social responsibility” bias, with such names as Liang Qichao (1873 –1929), one of the most “exalted editor journalists” in the Chinese world, bringing a “rational and responsible” journalism to the Chinese public sphere (de Burgh 2003, 204).
Threats To The Fourth Estate Role Of The Media
The liberal fourth estate functions of the media were undermined by the state control of media under communism, while in the capitalist world, hypercommercialism, indicated by a ratingsand circulation-driven media system, has eroded the democratic potential of the mass media. During the Cold War years the two competing models of media – state controlled and market driven – set the parameters of the extent to which the media could perform their fourth estate functions. In communist countries as well as in most developing countries they were little more than the mouthpiece of the ruling parties or of dictatorships – whether of rightor left-wing political orientation.
With the globalization of the US model of the media – one largely dependent on commercial advertising – the public interest has come under strain in most countries, evident in the decline and fall of public service media across the world. However, globalization has also provided transnational connectivity, enabling the creation of what has been called a “mediapolis,” defined as the “mediated public space where contemporary political life increasingly finds its place, both at national and global levels, and where the materiality of the world is constructed through (principally) electronically communicated public speech and action” (Silverstone 2007, 24). Unlike Habermas’s conception of the public sphere, with its rational debate and argument, the mediapolis is more inclusive, because within it communication is “multiple and multiply inflected” (Silverstone 2007, 34).
Given the global nature of the Internet, it has emerged as an increasingly important communication forum, providing opportunities for developing and strengthening a transnational network of journalists and information activists to cooperate and exchange ideas. The “journalism domain” within the Internet, it has been argued, “is a core element of the public sphere on the Internet” (Dahlgren 2005, 153). In the age of the Internet, journalists can incorporate various viewpoints in their reports: in foreign reporting such access can be particularly useful in providing more balanced coverage on contentious international issues. It is the case that much of the online connectivity has been colonized for e-commerce, and yet the fourth estate functions, undertaken by activists and information mavericks, have enriched the transnational public discourse by providing alternative voices and perspectives on crucial contemporary issues.
In the 1990s the Internet was used effectively to mobilize international support against the US-sponsored Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), which would have given unfettered powers to transnational corporations to move capital from one country to another. A concerted campaign was able to thwart the MAI. The growing importance of blogging in political communication as well as such “user generated” media outlets as Current TV, the channel made of clips created by viewers and producers and run by Al Gore, the former US vice-president, could be said to be “democratizing the media”. Such globalization of news media has prompted scholars to extend the Habermasian idea of a public sphere into a global arena, facilitated by the unprecedented growth in transnational satellite news networks and online journalism, creating a global public sphere (McNair 2006).
The conception of a single, rational public sphere to promote the fourth estate function appears hard to sustain in the twenty-first century 24/7 multimedia world. In a “globalized public sphere” various versions of the public interest are circulating in a media ecology characterized by increasingly fragmenting and rapidly proliferating news and information outlets (McNair 2006, 143). The notion of a fourth estate too needs to be broadened to take account of our globalized media production and consumption patterns.
- Carlyle, T. (1841). On heroes, hero-worship and the heroic in history. London: D. Appleton.
- Dahlgren, P. (2005). The Internet, public spheres, and political communication: Dispersion and deliberation. Political Communication, 22, 147–162.
- de Burgh, H. (2003). The journalist in China: Looking to the past for inspiration. Media History, 9(3), 195 –207.
- Gandhi, M. K. (1970). Gandhi: Essential writings (ed. V. V. Ramana Murti). New Delhi: Gandhi Peace Foundation.
- Habermas, J. (1989). The structural transformation of the public sphere: An inquiry into a category of bourgeois society (trans. T. Burger & F. Lawrence). Cambridge: Polity. (Original work published 1962).
- The Hindu (2003). Special editorial, August 27.
- McNair, B. (2006). Cultural chaos: Journalism, news and power in a globalized world. London: Routledge.
- Ram, N. (1990). An independent press and anti-hunger strategies: The Indian experience. In J. Dreze & A. Sen (eds.), The political economy of hunger, vol. I. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Rau, M. C. (1974). The press. New Delhi: National Book Trust.
- Silverstone, R. (2007). Media and morality: On the rise of the mediapolis. Cambridge: Polity.