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Opinion: “Farewell Fourth Estate? Part 1 – The nature of the Fourth Estate” – Julian Petley

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’.

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, British newspapers should have spent the past few decades ‘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. And, again, it took the revelation that Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked on behalf of the News of the World to propel the whole phone- hacking scandal from the pages of the Guardian and into those other national newspapers which had studiously avoided the scandal literally for years.

Quite as important as the phone-hacking revelations, however, has been the exposure of the real relations between the Murdoch empire and the English political class. Far from ‘holding the powerful to account’ on behalf of the public, it has threatened and bullied politicians whom it perceives as not being sufficiently friendly towards its business interests and thrown the support of its papers behind whichever political party it perceives as most likely to advance those interests.

As Bruce Page points out in his seminal book on Murdoch, ‘market dominion in modern states is unsustainable without political protection or collaboration‘ (The Murdoch Archipelago, London: Simon and Schuster 2003, p.483), and thus we need to understand Murdoch’s journalistic activities in terms of what Page calls a ‘politico-business model’ which fatally erodes the boundaries between the state power and media operations, turning political journalism into a means of maintaining sympathetic relations with governments which are supportive of his business interests. Thus two Faustian bargains are entered into simultaneously; one by journalists who surrender their integrity and independence in order to advance their careers (or at least keep their jobs), and a second by politicians who promote Murdoch-friendly policies in return for the support of his papers. Such a process embroils politicians in what Page calls ‘a dance of folly which has at least the potential to be a dance of death for democracy‘ (Ibid., p.479), and is exemplified by what has come to be known as the ‘Murdoch clause’ which, as a result of a sustained lobbying campaign by the tycoon’s henchmen, was inserted into the Communications Act 2003 and would have enabled him, as a non EU citizen, to buy Channel 5 if he so desired.

Such a politico-business strategy cannot, of course, be pursued openly by Murdoch and his editors if his papers are to retain any shred of credibility, and is thus masked by precisely the kind of ‘anti-establishment’ rhetoric habitually spouted by the Murdochs (and the Sun), as exemplified by the remarks cited above. But when those whose actions have resulted in a really significant diminution of serious journalism in Britain’s national newspapers pose as stout defenders of the ideals 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 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 1841 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’ (Quoted in Tony Harcup, Journalism: Principles and Practice, London: Sage 2009, p.4)  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” (Quoted in ibid.: p.69)

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.
  • Scrutinise the action and inaction of governments, elected representatives and public services.
  • Scrutinise 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 (David Randall, The Universal Journalist, London: Pluto 2007, 3rd Edn, p.3).

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 scrutinising the behaviour of the rich and powerful so as to keep them accountable to the public.
  • Provides members of society with the information which 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 little do they account for what is to be found in the bulk of Britain’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 characterisation 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’ (John Lanchester, ‘Let us pay’, London Review of Books, 16 December 2010, p.6).

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’ (Flat Earth News, Chatto and Windus 2008, p.139). 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 battles over Trafigura and Barclays, its role in the Wikileaks affair and its exposure of phone-hacking? Are these not shining examples of Fourth Estate journalism? Yes, of course they are. But now consider the following hard facts. According to the Audit Bureau of Circulation, headline circulation for the national dailies in August 2011 was 9,701,764, of which the red-top and mid-market tabloids accounted for 7,675,039. 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%, and during the summer of 2011 the phone-hacking revelations did nothing positive for the Guardian’s sales figures (although in July it registered its largest monthly rise in daily online readers). It should also be noted that those newspapers whose coverage of serious news is fullest also registered year-on-year falls in August 2011: the Guardian (11.33%), The Times (8.96%), the Telegraph (6.08%), the Financial Times (11.87%) and the Independent (1.07%), although it should be noted that the middle market and red-top tabloids suffered too. But what this all adds up to is that the majority of national newspapers circulating in Britain 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 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% of respondents, television was their most trusted source of UK news, with newspapers scoring a mere 6%.  Research carried out for the successor body, Ofcom, and published in 2006 in the report New News, Future News showed that 65% of respondents cited television as the main platform which they used to access news, as opposed to 14% for newspapers.

And finally, a YouGov poll carried out in March 2008 for the British Journalism Review showed that 44% of the public trust journalists on up-market newspapers to tell the truth. The equivalent figure for journalists on mid-market newspapers is 19%, and for journalists on the red-tops 15%. By comparison, 87% of people trust family doctors to tell the truth, 76% trust teachers and 71% 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% of people trusted journalists on up-market papers to tell the truth, but, as noted above, by March 2008 this had dropped to 44%.

Over the same period the percentage of people who trust journalists on mid-market papers dropped from 36% to 18%. The figure for red-top newspapers stayed close to the bottom of the table, although it rose very slightly from 14% to 15%, over this five year period. In 2008, 49% of newspaper readers questioned stated that they did not trust journalists on up-market papers, with the percentages rising to 75% in the case of mid-market journalists and 83% in the case of red-top journalists. However, what is particularly significant is that 32% of readers of up-market papers professed not to trust the journalists who worked for these papers, whilst 65% of readers of mid-market papers and 68% 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’ (Steven Barnett, ‘On the road to self-destruction’, British Journalism Review, 19:2, 2008, p.10).

It’s also worth stressing 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% of members of EU states tend 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 British figure with those for Luxembourg (highest at 65%), followed by Portugal (59%) and the Czech Republic (58%). 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 simply to the gullibility and feebleness of our European neighbours.

That the dominant style of press journalism in Britain is very different indeed 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, Britain 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 Britain’s press is decidedly and, in many cases, stridently, illiberal, compared to the predominantly liberal tone of the national press in most EU countries (although 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, Britain’s 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 absolutely 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% of their revenue, with advertising making up the other 40%, whereas in the case of the up-market papers the percentages are reversed.

[To be Continued]

Julian Petley is Professor of Screen Media and Journalism at Brunel University.

An earlier version of this paper appeared in the Eurozine focal point “Media Landscapes: Western Europe“.   It is reproduced with permission and thanks.


  1. Steven Price

    I wonder whether someone could come up with a more nuanced way of measuring the public’s “trust” in the media. If I was asked whether I trusted the media – really, any of it – the best answer I could give is: yes and no. A bit. Depends on the issue, the particular statement, how important it is to me, how much I already know about it, how much I think the journalist knows about it, and a range of other things. I’d trust the silliest redtop to get a football score right. On the other hand, I wouldn’t trust anything any “up-market” paper had to say about super-injunctions. Isn’t a bald question about “trust” virtually meaningless?

  2. Politics Matters

    On the subject of the Fourth Estate and watchdog journalism, Bob Gibson, Executive Director of the University of Virginia’s Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership, recently said: “If we don’t have a watchdog function, then we have a lapdog function, and that doesn’t serve the voter very well. We need journalism that goes out and challenges what is being given reporters as the facts. We need to look behind the facts and find out where they’re coming from, and what the interests are of the people who are giving us those facts. Local government and state government and the federal government today are even more than ever in the news business themselves. They are putting out news as if it was the entire package and expecting people to buy it and I think Americans have to be a little bit skeptical and have to look behind where those governments are putting out facts.” (Gibson appeared on the Charlottesville, VA, politics interview program Politics Matters with host and producer Jan Madeleine Paynter discussing journalism

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