Edmund Burke is often acknowledged as the source of the term Fourth Estate to describe the press. In a speech to the Commons in 1787 he reportedly described the three estates of parliament – the Lords Spiritual, Temporal, and the Commons itself – and then referred to a fourth powerful estate sitting in the press gallery above.
The power of the fourth estate in the UK is awesome to behold, and something to cherish and defend because at its best it gives voice to those without a platform to speak from, can champion unpopular or unfashionable causes, strengthen our democracy through rigorous debate and analysis, pricks the hypocrisy of the establishment and authority, and holds our politics and politicians to account. But that same awesome power exercised without thought or responsibility is tyrannical, undermines democracy and informed debate, and can punishes and humiliate the powerless without fear of any recourse.
The press can poison the well of public discourse, as easily as they can purify it. The latest contamination through the hacking scandal will take some clearing up.
The phone hacking controversy will be painful for the media (and sections of the police, whose apparent complicity with the press surely will require surgical removal of the affected parts), but it may be the opportunity to properly address press standards, without sacrificing the essential freedoms of the press. But to do so has to begin by the press recognising their responsibility for fairness and integrity in reporting.
If the Fourth Estate wants to live up to its name – not down to it – then it cannot use the excuse that “we only print what our readership wants: if they didn’t buy it, we wouldn’t print it”. This is hardly the clarion cry of a moral-crusading red-top. It’s more like a race to the gutter. Editors – especially though not exclusively in the red-tops - need to decide whether they will use this crashing low-point in journalism to recalibrate their own moral compasses, to voluntarily set far higher standards for themselves, and in so doing reflect the higher consciences of their readership and society. Don’t constantly underestimate your readership: instead, challenge and surprise it.
Good standards of journalism require good ethics, and this has to be driven through the whole editorial process. Editors and journalists need to be more willing to reject stories, or at least work harder to justify and verify stories, before anything reaches print or the webpage. Consideration of “public interest” simply has to be far more rigorous. The Press Complaints Commission has failed miserably, but the voluntary approach has to be made to work. It is now in the interests of the press to show they are serious about setting the bar high, and punishing transgressions.
This phenomenon of the press eating itself and with it corrupting the standards of public debate and discourse is not new, and it probably means we will be back here again at some point. One celebrity who suffered real personal and public anguish and tragedy from the feeding frenzy of the press reflected: “In old days men had the rack. Now they have the press. That is an improvement certainly. But still it is very bad, and wrong, and demoralizing.” Oscar Wilde probably expressed the view of many – not just celebs but also normally anonymous members of the public - nowadays who suddenly and dramatically experience the very public dismemberment of their reputations without any anaesthetic, and wonder when they entirely signed away their basic rights.
Politicians do not get away scot-free from this recent debacle.
Individually as MPs, collectively as parties, and in our wider role as parliamentarians of this House we have been too reluctant in recent years to speak out. This has not been a fear without justification, as MPs who have taken on the press have found themselves personally targeted and vilified, scandalised and brutalised by sections of the press who decided that there are no limits to the retribution due to any single MP – or any party - who raises their head above the parapet and takes them on. In the words of the “Untouchables” – which is what the press have long regarded themselves as – “he pulls a knife, you pull a gun, he sends one of your to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.”
The flip-side has been the tendency of political parties to hug the press close, in order to avoid being stabbed in the back. It’s a dangerous tactic, and now it is time to reassess this relationship, and keep a more healthy and dignified distance from each other. Too friendly a relationship is not good for democracy, of which a free press and free politicians are key parts.
Our individual and collective role as politicians and the body politic must be to shake off both the paralysing fear, and the suffocating cosiness of recent years.
So in respect of the ongoing enquiries into hacking and blagging, of course there must be an accounting for recent transgressions by sections of the press which have amounted to abuses of free speech, and of police if found to have colluded. If criminal activity (payment of police, and phone-hacking) was not simply the result of rogue individuals but also of a culture which encouraged or condoned criminal activity – not bending the rules but breaking the law – then that culture is set by the leadership of the organisation. Editors and Chief Executives should be morally and legally liable for the actions on their watch.
But one enduring lesson we can and must learn is to rebalance the relationship between the press and politicians. That way, we can restore confidence in the free press, and in a vigorous public discourse which is vital to our democracy.