The Non-Existent Fourth Estate

In his review of W. Sydney Robinson‘s Muckraker: The Scandalous Life and Times of W. T. Stead (‘The Only True Throne’, London Review of Books, 19 July 2012), John Pemble writes

‘Nothing like being an editor for getting a swollen head,’ the Fleet Street veteran A.G. Gardiner wrote in his memoirs. He must have had W.T. Stead especially in mind, because no editorial head was bigger than Stead’s. In the 1880s, first as deputy editor then editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, he’d been able (he said) to ‘wreck cabinets [and] let loose a tide of war upon helpless populations’. He was responsible – in his own words – for ‘ministers driven into retirement, laws repealed, great social reforms initiated, bills transformed, estimates remodelled, acts passed, generals nominated, governors appointed, armies sent hither and thither, war proclaimed and war averted’. It’s no wonder he had such a high opinion of himself: Victorian journalists were always being told how important and powerful they were. Bulwer-Lytton’s lines of 1838 – ‘Beneath the rule of men entirely great/The pen is mightier than the sword’ – coined a proverb, and by common consent no pen was mightier than that employed by ‘the press’. This 18th-century term, originally used to refer to periodical literature in general, by early Victorian times meant first and foremost the daily papers. In 1828 Macaulay identified the press as ‘a Fourth Estate of the Realm’; by the 1850s, when William Russell was reporting from the Crimea for the Times and his editor, John Delane, was fulminating against the mismanagement of the war, nobody could argue with it. ‘This country is ruled by the Times,’ the Saturday Review declared. ‘We all know it, or if we do not know it, we ought to know it.’

Does the ‘press’ still rule? Can editors still claim the powers that W. T. Stead claimed for himself? It depends, I think, on what we take the referent of ‘press’ to be. If by ‘press’ we are referring to the gigantic media conglomerates that are the result of a never-ending process of corporate mergers of television, newspaper, magazine, and now digital services, then the answer is perhaps still ‘yes.’ The presidential candidate most likely to be elected is the one who can buy himself the most television time; the legislation most likely to pass is that which has been hawked the most successfully by its proponents on that same medium; wars are more likely to be declared if the press can be counted on, as in the case of the Iraq war, to faithfully parrot the talking points of the warmongers; a media frenzy over a politicians scandalous behavior can still bring end an career; a press conference remains the obligatory performative ritual for a disgraced leader; and so on.

But a great deal of what I’m describing above does not sound like what Macaulay had in mind in his ‘Fourth Estate’ formulation. All too often the media behemoth does not monitor the political process as watchdog, but rather manipulates it as active interested partner. How could it be otherwise given its monopolistic nature and corporate ownership?

Note: Pemble’s summation of the non-existence of the Fourth Estate, even in W. T. Stead’s time–unfortunately behind a behind a paywall at the LRB–makes for interesting reading: ‘the political weight of the press had declined as its circulation increased’ i.e., as it became subject to market forces.

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