The Fourth Estate
“The media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power because they control the minds of the masses.” — Malcolm X
Author’s note: This article was initially published on June 23, 2014. There are occasions when we believe it is helpful for the public discourse to reprint an article, and we do so this week. We must always protect and safeguard a healthy press if we expect our democracy to thrive. The press, often referred to as the Fourth Estate, has a vital role to play in our democracy.
Recently, there has been considerable commentary from many quarters of our society about the media and its role in today’s Bahamas. Politicians in particular — and from both sides of the aisle — have taken to critical commentary about media coverage depending on the story and what the reporters say about them.
Therefore, this week we would like Consider This … what is the role of the media in today’s Bahamas and are there deliberate attempts to quiet the Fourth Estate?
The Fourth Estate
The term the “Fourth Estate” is derived from the medieval “estates of the realm,” of which three were formally recognized: the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners. Each “estate” had a distinct social role and a certain level of power and influence.
By the middle of the 19th Century, people began referring to the press as a fourth estate, referencing the fact that most parliaments and other houses of government had an area set aside specifically for use by the press, which highlighted that the press was a distinct group within the larger framework of the realm.
Several historians credit the coinage of the term “Fourth Estate” to Edmund Burke, who is said to have used it when discussing the French Revolution, although the 19th century author, Thomas Carlyle, popularized the term.
In modern societies, the media is often called the fourth branch of government (or “fourth estate”) in addition to the executive, legislative and judicial branches.
It is generally accepted that the most important role of the Fourth Estate is to monitor the political process to ensure that those in the other three branches do not abuse the democratic process. Today, the Fourth Estate includes the public press, collectively encompassing journalists, photographers, television broadcasters, and radio announcers, among others.
The role of the media
Few will argue that access to information is essential to a healthy democracy for at least three reasons.
Firstly, it reports the news without bias as facts are presented as they are.
Secondly, it ensures that citizens are able to make responsible, informed choices on matters of national importance rather than acting out of ignorance or misinformation.
Thirdly, the media serves a “checking function” by disclosing whether elected representatives have upheld their oaths of office, fulfilled their campaign promises and carried out the wishes of those who elected them.
Some people become very sensitive about media coverage because it plays such an important role in the fortunes of political candidates, elected officials, dignitaries, and national issues.
This is where the role of the media can become controversial.
News reporting is supposed to be objective and balanced, but journalists are people, with feelings, opinions, and preconceived ideas.
It is sometimes felt that journalists either allow their bias to creep into the reporting of the news or report only news that is negative to the side they are biased against, ignoring news that may be equally negative about the side they support.
In addition to its responsibility of “reporting the news”, the print media also contains an “op-ed” section, where opinions and Editorial commentary are expressed by the Editor, columnists or the general public, the latter often in the form of letters to the Editor.
Protecting freedom of the press
The media has immense political and social power, because it can be used to shape societies while imparting news of note and commentary of interest. Because of its importance, many countries have embedded press freedom provisions in their national constitutions. Other nations have enacted laws to protect the rights of the press, ensuring that citizens have access to reports on matters of interest.
Because of the importance of the Fourth Estate in society, most members of the media abide by certain professional and personal codes of ethics. Many journalists attempt to cultivate an air of neutrality, focusing on reporting the issues as they are, so that people can judge the facts for themselves, while others focus on offering commentary and analysis from the perspective of a particular position.
Journalists are careful as a whole to protect the integrity of the press, protecting sources, verifying information before publication, and using a variety of other techniques to convey a trustworthy appearance to the public, encouraging people to put their faith in the media.
The Fourth Estate in The Bahamas
For many decades, there has historically been a tug-of-war between the media and politicians in The Bahamas.
In the early days of party politics, dating back to the early 1950s, the two established daily newspapers were seen as biased in favor of the white oligarchy, which sought to continue the established conservative social and political order, often denigrating the fledgling Progressive Liberal Party (PLP). This prompted some in the PLP to form the Bahamian Times newspaper, in order to ensure that the PLP’s position was clearly delineated to the people of The Bahamas.
It is fair to say that while the editorial slant of the Tribune has not radically changed, the same observation cannot be made of The Nassau Guardian. More recently, the editorial slant of The Nassau Guardian has been more balanced, equally criticizing the PLP, the Free National Movement and the Democratic National Alliance – taking each to task as the need arises.
It is wrong for persons in public life to conclude that the newspapers are deliberately “out to get them” because the media reports factual information about the conduct of persons in public office.
Facts and sometimes foolish statements emanating from politicians are stubborn things; they are what they are, and no amount of complaining about their reporting will change the facts or the foolish statements.
For politicians to believe that they are immune from public scrutiny for their actions and statements is a mistake. The media has a sacred responsibility and duty to inform the public about the conduct of all persons who hold public office, regardless of their party affiliation.
Imagine what would have happened if Woodward and Bernstein did not investigate and report on the Watergate break in, which resulted in the resignations and convictions of numerous high level, powerful politicians who abused their office and broke the law, and the resignation of a corrupt US president.
Woodward and Bernstein did not deliberately set out on a course to destroy the lives of those who broke the laws. Their primary objective was to critically investigate, analyze, and report the facts, wherever they led.
The same can be said for Daniel Ellsberg’s revelations relative to the Pentagon Papers, Julian Assange regarding WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden concerning the excessive NSA abuses and invasion of privacy of countless innocent citizens in many countries.
Our politicians must come to terms with the vitally important role of the Fourth Estate in the development of our country and should recognize that the media’s role is to expose incompetence, corruption, malfeasance, and breaches of the rule of law that governs us. Members of the Fourth Estate should conduct themselves without fear or favor, oblivious to who the persons are that they are investigating.
Politicians should not be surprised when the media calls attention to their abuses of office or power, their arrogance and excessive sense of entitlement. Politicians are servants of the people and should conduct themselves accordingly; otherwise they should expect that the Fourth Estate will expose them.
Instead of vilifying the press, progressive politicians, distinguished persons and private citizens alike should willingly engage the media in order to present their account of events or their side of the story.
It benefits no one to attack the media, unless it engages in defamatory reporting, in which case the aggrieved parties can and should seek legal redress before the courts.
As we mature as a nation, we will find that it is far better to engage the press in meaningful dialogue, to have frank and open discussions with them and to explain one’s actions and decisions on their merits.
Not only will it demonstrate the constructive power of communication, but this kind of honest and straightforward interaction will go a long way in building the strong democracy envisioned by our forefathers, a democracy that will be the backbone of the robust and advanced society we all wish to see.
• Philip C. Galanis is the managing partner of HLB Bahamas, Advisors and Chartered Accountants. He served 15 years in Parliament. Please send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.