Hong Kong Public Affairs and Social Service Society

London School of Economics and Political Science Students' Union

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This website was launched in 2015 by Zoe Liu (Publications Officer 2015-16)

The Fourth Estate

January 30, 2017

“Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but in the reporter’s gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth estate far more important than them all” mused Thomas Carlyle (a Scottish Philosopher) nearly two centuries ago. These words still right true today, and with the internet and social media, the influence that they wield is greater than before. However, this power comes with responsibility: to uphold and preserve ideals of democracy. This article will first outline the basic functions of the press in a democracy, and discuss the challenges and opportunities posed by digital media.

 

A democracy in which the people do not know about the activities of their rulers is an illiberal democracy, and examples of such are Russia and Turkey. An illiberal democracy is not considered a full democracy as the rulers have lower accountability to the people as they are not accountable for the actions that the people do not know of. This is detrimental to the government, as bad decisions that they make would not be punished by citizens in the ballot box, and thus propping up the rule of those who are incompetent. As a result, a democracy requires a knowledgable electorate, and by extension, a press that can relay information to the public. In doing so, the press creates a feedback loop in ensuring good governance would be known and rewarded by the public, and incompetence will be punished. This system of the press reporting on the actions of the government, both the good and the bad, invariably creates tension between the two, as the government would want themselves painted in the best possible light. This may be the power that Caryle was talking about: the government has power to govern, but the press decides on who the public votes to govern. This task is not to be taken likely, and as seen in the digitalisation of media, it has been increasingly difficult to strike this balance.

 

One of the greatest challenges facing the press is what sociologist Robert Mc Chesney calls the “hyper commercialisation" of the press. As the digital platform as made it easier for everyone and anyone to disseminate information, news agencies have more competition than ever to capture the attention of their readers. This all is in additional to the fierce ratings and circulation wars between news agencies themselves. What this results in ins a sensationalisation of the press. Instead of more nuanced terms that adequately describe the situation, they use more extreme phrases to catch the public’s attention. Especially in the political sphere, criticisms are often of the superlative, and conflicts and breaks in opinion are said to be ‘stark’, with developments described as alarming. This heightens the tension between the government and press, but at the same time, they cannot do without each other. The democratic government needs the press to inform their citizens about their actions, and the press relies upon them as a source of news. As a result, they have increasingly become unwary, if not already strange bedfellows. 

 

This tension is difficult to solved in its present state. Unlike other articles that provide a sweeping generalisation and a vague call to action to solve an impossibly large problem, yours truly has neither the expertise of the knowledge to give an impactful suggestion. Sometimes an opinion not expressed is more valuable than that is, as one made without the requisite expertise is simply speculation.  I will end on one note, and that is the press are not made such ways because they are ‘evil’ or ‘lying’ or corrupt’. What they do is simply a reflection of commercial pressures exerted by today’s medium of media, and pandering to their respective bases with emotive language is one way to retain readership and stay afloat, That is the model for now, and without a change in the model, it would be hard to see a way to lessen the tension between the four seats of government.

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