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Opinion: “Farewell Fourth Estate? Part 2 – The Press, the Market and Public Interest” – Julian Petley

Part One of this post, was published on 5 October 2011. An earlier version of this paper appeared in the Eurozine focal point “Media Landscapes: Western Europe“.

The manner in which unregulated market forces impact upon the national daily press in Britain are almost wholly destructive of Fourth Estate principles. Let me try to explain why this is the case.

In spite of a vast, and indeed ever-growing, amount of evidence to the contrary, it is still an accepted principle of ‘free market’ dogma – to give it its correct name – that unregulated competition leads to higher quality, more choice and lower prices. What it actually leads to, however, is oligopoly and thence monopoly, and the domination of the market by goods and services with mass appeal – or what, to adapt John Stuart Mill, we might call the tyranny of majority tastes. Left to its own devices, the market may deliver what many people want much of the time, but is far less effective at delivering what many people want some of the time, and even worse at delivering what minorities of one kind or another want a good deal of the time. This is particularly true in the case of fully commercialised media – which is why, in Britain and other European countries, one part of the media, namely broadcasting, has not been left to the tender mercies of market forces but instead has been treated as a form of public service. However if the apostles of ‘de-regulation’, such as Rupert Murdoch, have their way in the UK, British broadcasting will soon be following in the footsteps of the national press.

In such a situation, threats to media freedom in general and to the journalistic ideals of the Fourth Estate in particular stem less from the excessive use of state power, although this should not be discounted, than from the unregulated growth of the media qua large-scale commercial organisations. As John Keane  pointed out remarkably presciently at the start of the 1990s:

Historically, the proponents of ‘liberty of the press’ directed their criticisms mainly against the state regulation of market-based communications media. Today, by contrast, friends of ‘liberty of the press’ must recognise that communications markets restrict freedom of communication by generating barriers to entry, monopoly and restrictions upon choice, and by shifting the prevailing definition of information from that of a public good to that of a privately appropriable commodity” (Emphases in original)( John Keane, The Media and Democracy, Cambridge: Polity 1991, p.87).

Or as another early critic of the malign role of market forces in the field of the media put it: ‘A laissez-faire approach to economic activity is not necessarily the best guarantor of freedom of expression, since an unregulated market may develop in a way that effectively reduces diversity and limits the capacity of most individuals to make their views heard’ (John B. Thompson, The Media and Modernity, Cambridge: Polity 1995: p.239). In other words, unregulated market competition produces market censorship.

It’s now a truism that information has become a commodity, indeed one of the most valuable commodities, but less well understood is the impact which this has had on journalism. We hear much about ‘dumbing down’, ‘info-tainment’, ‘tabloidisation’ and ‘market-driven journalism’, but all too often it appears as if it’s the stupidity of the public which is largely to blame for this state of affairs, as opposed to it being an integral part of the wholesale commodification of information and culture – what Manuel Castells calls ‘info-capitalism’.  One of the most acute diagnoses of this state of affairs has been provided by the veteran journalist Neil Hickey, and although it refers specifically to the US, much of what it says about print journalism, and the reasons for its abandonment of the ideals of the Fourth Estate, is, unfortunately, all too applicable to Britain’s national press:

A new era has dawned in American journalism. A New York Times editor describes its hallmark: ‘A massively increased sensitivity to all things financial’ As competition grows ever more ferocious; as the audience continues to drift away from traditional news sources, both print and television; as the public’s confidence in news organizations and news people continues to decline; as mainstream print and TV news outlets purvey more ‘life-style’ stories, trivia, scandal, celebrity gossip, sensational crime, sex in high places, and tabloidism at the expense of serious news in a cynical effort to maximize readership and viewership; as editors collude ever more willingly with marketers, promotion ‘experts’, and advertisers, thus ceding a portion of their sacred editorial trust; as editors shrink from tough coverage of major advertisers lest they jeopardize ad revenue; as news holes grow smaller in column inches to cosmeticize the bottom line; as news executives cut muscle and sinew from budgets to satisfy their corporate overseers’ demands for higher profit margins each year; as top managers fail to reinvest profits in staff training, investigative reports, salaries, plant, and equipment – then the broadly-felt consequence of those factors and many others, collectively, is a diminished and deracinated journalism of a sort that hasn’t been seen in this country until now and which, if it persists, will be a fatal erosion of the ancient bond between journalists and the public (Neil Hickey, ‘‘Money lust: how pressure for profit is perverting journalism’, Columbia Journalism Review, July/August 1998, p.29).

In the UK context, very similar sentiments inform Nick Davies’ above-mentioned Flat Earth News, in which he sardonically lays out the ‘rules of production’ for journalism in the age of info-capitalism, the sixth of which is ‘Give them what they want’, and whose attendant ethos is ‘if we can sell it, we’ll tell it’ (Davies, Flat Earth News, p.133.)

Since blaming public taste is the usual response of those accused of abandoning the ideals of the Fourth Estate, it’s worth quoting Reuven Frank, a former president of NBC News, on this particular gambit: ‘This business of giving people what they want is a dope pusher’s argument.  News is something people don’t know they’re interested in until they hear about it. The job of a journalist is to take what’s important and make it interesting’ (Quoted in Hickey, op. cit., p.34) However, the most magisterial demolition of this particular populist ploy actually occurred in 1960 in the course of a defence of public service broadcasting. Nonetheless, replace the words ‘television’ and ‘programme’ below with the words ‘press’ or ‘journalism’ and the argument still retains its full, and very considerable, force:

No one can say he is giving the public what it wants unless the public knows the whole range of possibilities which television can offer and, from this range, chooses what it wants to see. For a choice is only free if the field of choice is not unnecessarily restricted. The subject matter of television is to be found in the whole scope and variety of human awareness and experience. If viewers – ‘the public’ – are thought of as ‘the mass audience’, or ‘the majority’, they will be offered only the average common experience and awareness; the ‘ordinary’; the commonplace – for what all know and do is, by definition, commonplace. They will be kept unaware of what lies beyond the average of experience; their field of choice will be limited. In time they may come to like only what they know. But it will always be true that, had they been offered a wider choice from which to choose, they might and often would have chosen otherwise, and with greater enjoyment (Report of the Committee on Broadcasting, London: HMSO 1960, p.17).

In this view of things, ‘giving the public what it wants’ is simply

patronising and arrogant, in that it claims to know what the public is, but defines it as no more than the mass audience; and in that it claims to know what it wants but limits its choice to the average of experience. In this sense, we reject it utterly. If there is a sense in which it should be used, it is this: what the public wants and what it has the right to get is freedom to choose from the widest range of programme matter. Anything less than that is deprivation (Ibid., pp17-18).

Thus far we have seen how the workings of unregulated market forces go a long way to explaining the ever-increasing predominance of ‘soft’ news in the press (and by no means simply in the red-tops and mid-market tabloids, either). However, they also play a key role in maintaining the thoroughly illiberal, stridently populist stance which is the predominant ideological feature of the bulk of Britain’s national daily press, and which, again, severely undercuts its claims to be a Fourth Estate.

For reasons which I have explained elsewhere (Julian Petley, ‘What Fourth Estate?’, in Michael Bailey (ed.), Narrating Media History, London: Routledge 2009, pp. 184-95) Britain’s national press has always been heavily skewed to the right ever since its modern version came into being in the second half of the nineteenth century. However, with the three major parties in England now crowded on the centre-right and in thrall to the ideology of neo-liberalism, it is no longer particularly meaningful to group papers in terms of left/right or Tory/Labour affinities. A more useful ideological distinction, however, can be made between socially liberal and socially illiberal papers, with the former comprising the Guardian, Independent and Financial Times (if you think the Mirror is a liberal paper, consider its coverage of law ‘n’ order issues, and in particular its vengeful, rabble-rousing coverage the James Bulger affair, from the end of the original murder trial through to the recent hounding of John Venables), and the latter the rest of the national press. Of course, this is not to claim that socially liberal views never appear in socially illiberal newspapers (vide Peter Oborne in the Mail and now the Telegraph), or that socially illiberal views never appear in socially liberal newspapers (thus Dominic Lawson in the Independent), but simply that socially illiberal views predominate in the vast bulk of the national daily press. In no remotely conceivable way does this reflect the balance of ideological forces in the population at large: in August 2011 socially liberal papers accounted for just 944,717 copies in terms of daily circulation whilst the illiberal rest accounted for 8,757,047 (of which 7,675,039 were red-top and mid-market tabloids). Compare this with the annual British Social Attitudes survey, which shows that, in spite of the distinct impression given otherwise by the national daily press, socially liberal attitudes far outweigh illiberal ones in Britain.

The populism which is such a salient feature of most of Britain’s national daily press performs both an ideological and economic function – to put it simply, it sells newspapers by confirming the prejudices of the readership to which it aims to appeal. And by posing as ‘public opinion’ on social matters, it attempts – largely successfully – to terrify governments out of pursuing liberal social policies, particularly where law-and-order is concerned (witness the recent press onslaught on the Home Secretary Kenneth Clarke for daring to oppose the populist mantra that ‘prison works’). Again, Nick Davies serves as a useful guide to the processes at work here. The seventh of his ‘rules of production’ concerns what he calls ‘the bias against truth’ which extends the purely commercial imperative of rule six (‘Give them what they want’) beyond the selection of the stories themselves and into ‘a series of prejudices about the way that stories are told’ (Flat Earth News p.138.). This segues into rule eight ‘Give them what they want to believe in’, nicely illustrated by Piers Morgan’s observation that ‘the readers are never wrong. Repulsive, maybe, but never wrong” (Ibid, p.141). Rule nine inevitably follows: ‘Go with the moral panic’ (Ibid, p.142).

The result is a remarkably ugly, demagogic form of journalism which actually inverts many of the values traditionally associated with the notion of the fourth estate, (for example: Further afflict the already afflicted and affirm the comfortable in their comfort) although, to be fair, journalists are frequently its most trenchant critics. Take, for example, this recent cri de coeur from Will Hutton:

The info-capitalist proprietors – Murdoch, Rothermere and the Barclay Brothers – are happy to peddle the big narrative of a badly governed country with an overblown public sector being carried to the dogs by Eurocrats, liberalism, undue deference to political correctness and moral decay. It is a British version of a U.S. ‘tea party’ conservatism, but in some respects even more insidious. Commonsense views are set against those of lying politicians and untrustworthy technocrats, which are confirmed day by day by the way the news is spun, personalised and angled to support the big narrative. Government scientists cannot be trusted on climate change, swine flu, MMR or anything else. Statistics are twisted to indicate that crime – or teenage pregnancy – is always rising, even when, in reality, it is falling. Immigrants are allegedly swamping the country, ushered in by anti-British officials and politicians. Anyone who says differently is mercilessly hounded (Will Hutton, Them and Us: Changing Britain – Why We Need a Fairer Society, Little, Brown 2010, p.327)

In the vast bulk of today’s daily press, the beneficence of private enterprise, the ‘free market’ and property ownership are taken entirely for granted and made to appear as completely ‘natural’ phenomena. Before our very eyes the crisis of finance capital (whose coming was unnoticed by national press journalists, with the honourable exceptions of the Financial Times’ Gillian Tett and the Guardian’s Larry Elliott) is transformed by a remarkable ideological conjuring trick into a crisis caused by profligate public spending  In all but the minority liberal press, no opportunity is missed to articulate a positive, not to say triumphalist and exclusive, sense of nationhood, one which is strongly tainted by jingoism and xenophobia, and which, from time to time, slips over into outright racism. Enemies without are routinely invoked as a means of dividing ‘us’ from ‘them’, thus helping to foster a ‘fortress Britain’ mentality and providing justification for the clipping of the coinage of civil liberties in the cause of the ‘national security’ and, more recently, the ‘war on terror’. Meanwhile, the majority of the press has played a major role in aiding and abetting politicians in the creation of an ever-growing horde of ‘enemies within’, fearsome and threatening Others from whom ‘we’ need to be protected at all costs – thus furthering the creation of the surveillance society and the steady drift towards the post social-democratic state.

To which litany one must add the truly mind-boggling spectacle of the absolute hatred (and that is indeed the right word) displayed by every single illiberal newspaper, the Telegraph and The Times most definitely included, towards the Human Rights Act. Never mind that Article 10 enshrines for the very first time in English law a statutory right to freedom of expression, for which one would have thought that journalists, of all people, would be grateful, the British press has ensured that ‘human rights’ are dirty words in common parlance, and indeed is extremely proud of this achievement. This is partly because the origins of the HRA lie in the hated ‘Europe’, partly because Article 8, which concerns the right to privacy, threatens the popular press’ very lifeblood of kiss ‘n’ tell stories, but also because these papers are owned and run by conservatives of the most atavistic kind imaginable who, as such, simply loathe the idea of the plebs having any rights at all. This, of course, is why every time the question of rights is raised  they immediately stress the importance of responsibilities – blithely unaware, of course, that responsibilities are the corollaries of power, not of rights (For further discussion of this issue see Julian Petley, ‘Podsnappery: or why British newspapers support fagging’, Ethical Space, 3:2/3, 2006, pp.42-50; and Julian Petley, ‘What rights? Whose responsibilities?’, Soundings, 43, 2009, pp.77-88).

Which brings us neatly back to the responsibilities of the press enshrined in the Fourth Estate ideal, responsibilities which, as I have argued, most of Britain’s national daily newspapers have comprehensively abandoned. As a consequence, I would suggest that it is high time that the notion of the British national daily press as a Fourth Estate was itself abandoned. Instead, in my view, a distinction needs to be made between journalism which performs Fourth Estate functions, and that which does not, or is indeed entirely inimical to the values of the Fourth Estate. A similar position has recently been adopted by Brian Cathcart who, in the context of an exceptionally important article about the press and privacy, argues that a fundamental distinction needs to be made between, on the one hand,  journalism, which is demonstrably valuable in that ‘it tells us what is new, important and interesting in public life, it holds authority to account, it promotes informed debate, it entertains and enlightens’, and, on the other, the invasion of  people’s privacy in order to fabricate a ‘luridly packaged, sensational, self-promoting and at the same time self-righteous product’. In his view, a clear distinction now urgently needs to be made between ‘ethical journalism and professional intrusion into privacy’.

Now, whether one defines the former as Fourth Estate journalism and the latter as bad journalism, or the former as journalism and the latter as simply non- or even anti-journalism, in order to make such distinctions it is helpful, as Cathcart suggests, to have recourse to notions of the public interest. There is no one single definition of this, but there are various useful signposts. For example, the BBC Editorial Guidelines suggest that it includes, but is not confined to, the following:

  • Exposing or detecting crime.
  • Exposing significantly anti-social behaviour.
  • Exposing corruption or injustice.
  • Disclosing significant incompetence or negligence.
  • Protecting people’s health and safety.
  • Preventing people from being misled by some statement or action of an individual or organisation.
  • Disclosing information that assists people to better comprehend or make decisions on matters of public importance..

Also helpful in this respect are the definitions offered by the Information Commissioner’s Office, which suggest that journalism which is in the public interest

  • Furthers the understanding of and participation in the public debate of issues of the day.
  • Promotes accountability and transparency by public authorities for decisions taken by them.
  • Promotes accountability and transparency in the spending of public money. This would include matters pertaining to private sector delivery of public services.
  • Brings to light information affecting public health and public safety.

However, these definitions (here paraphrased) need to be supplemented by others which stress the importance of scrutinising the corporate sector as well, not least as so many functions once carried out by the public sector have now been privatised, with many more set to follow. Here a recent report published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism offers a helpful addition: ‘The public interest … assumes that citizens in a democratic state have an interest in having access to information about the workings of that state, of its institutions and its officials, both elected and appointed. However, the public interest is not confined to the state’s institutions, but also to private corporations and to voluntary organisations which—as nearly all do—require the public’s trust’ (Stephen Whittle and Glenda Cooper, Privacy, Probity and Public Interest, Oxford: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism 2009, p.76).

One of the virtues of defining journalism in terms of whether or not it performs a public interest function is that it cuts across red-top/mid-market/up-market distinctions, and thus avoids the charge of elitism and the suggestions that the up-market press consists only of Fourth Estate journalism and that such journalism is entirely absent from the red-tops and mid-market tabloids, neither of which is the case. But what it also avoids, crucially, is defining the national daily press as a whole, or individual national dailies, as the Fourth Estate, requiring instead judgements to be made on specific pieces of journalism. And where this really matters is when journalism comes before the courts, particularly in those cases in which a genuine public interest defence can reasonably be run. A workable definition of the public interest is thus not a matter of merely academic concern but could be of immense practical use when defending specific examples of journalism which embody the ideals of the Fourth Estate if they find themselves brought before the courts – an occurrence which, unfortunately, is all too frequent, and which serves only to underscore the importance of protecting proper journalism which genuinely serves the public interest.

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

1 Comment

  1. 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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