The Fourth and Fifth Estates

My favourite line from Mars Attacks comes from the President after Congress has been wiped out by the Aliens – “I want the people to know that they still have 2 out of 3 branches of the government working for them, and that ain’t bad”. The joke, of course, is that this would be a pretty bold claim at the best of times, and the government has been singularly useless at fighting off the invasion. I’ve been thinking about this quote often recently, because historically, the one part of the civil administration that really did seem to consistently work for us was the Fourth Estate – the news media. Throughout the world, there are now and always have been, journalists, reporting events that people without power needed to know.

Attempts to straightforwardly suppress news have not usually been straightforwardly successful, but many of my contemporaries are now concluding that the correct approach has now been found: destroy it from the inside. Dillute news content down to virtually nil, focus away from stories of real interest, and so on. However, I think there is an entirely different group to blame: the media-consuming public. When Ben Franklin was asked what he and the other revolutionaries had bequethed the American colonies, he responded “a republic, if you can keep it.” Which is a nice way of saying that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. We have been far from vigilant.

Having come to that bold conclusion, it would be extremely easy to stop, and castigate the public at large for prefering infotainment to information. I think that it is more useful to reconsider the term I casually slipped into the introduction to this piece – the “Fourth Estate”. What that title casually implies, is that the news media is a branch of government – that it plays a vital role in the proper functioning of a government. If we begin to think about news in those terms, we can start to think about the so-called “market forces” that have lead to ratings driving the production of news, and in particular, the decline in sales that are causing news rooms to shrink. We wouldn’t accept it if MPs or Judges stopped turning up because the population weren’t turning up to Question time or sitting in the public galleries. The contempt I hear expressed about journalists doesn’t obviate their necessity. Given that necessity, the current market-driven approach to funding journalism strikes me as slightly dangerous. After all, you get what you pay for, and we prefer to pay for things that aren’t good for us. Models like the public funding for the BBC seem far better than the Cable News system in the USA.

Thinking about all four “branches” of government also forces us to rethink how we view people like Edward Snowden or Bradley Manning. I was fascinated to read this account of Bradley Manning’s sentencing, and in particular, the basic conclusion:

We had all this hype about how bad it was going to be, and it kind of came and went and not much happened. But I think once the government kind of got on that horse, they weren’t going to back off, and they pressed it all the way to the end and ultimately lost on that charge. And I think the final result, at least in my estimation, is a pretty reasonable outcome. [my emphasis]

This case has adequately been summed up on Naked Capitalism and elsewhere as performing a fairly vital public good, in terms of informing the public-at-large about illegal activities nominally performed on behalf of the US citizenry. This Colonel is saying that the individual price to pay for revealing state secrets is reasonable: it is reasonable for this individual to be sacrificed by the public for the greater good. If we are thinking about journalists as a necessary element in a functional democracy, the idea that a whistleblower should be prosecuted becomes ludicrous. You wouldn’t consider prosecuting a Congressional aide for revealing hidden information to the President. Thinking about him in the way I propose is clearly taking the idea too far – but it’s important that we keep in mind just what the ultimate purpose of his activities was.

To an extent, I see the prosecution of journalists and whistleblowers as another symptom of the deeply riven and adversarial political model that seems to have become (or perhaps, always been) the dominant political mode in the US’s so-called democracy. Of course a President who spends his entire life fighting Republicans, when, say, he tries to implement their own healthcare plan, is going to look askance at the unelected Fourth Estate; he simply has more tools at his disposal to fight journalists than Congress.

The apparent unaccountability of governments, and their intransigence in the face of journalistic attempts to get accountability, create the need for another element in the equation. This element is fulfilled by the likes of Deep Throat, Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning – individuals inside the organization prepared to work against the interests of their organization in favour of the wider public interest. In WWII this kind of enemy within was called the “Fifth Column”, but in the current environment, I see them as the Fifth Estate – the fifth necessary component for maintaining a functional democracy. It seems like an awful shame that the price for fulfilling that role should effectively be your life, and that sympathetic advocates from the sideline should conclude that is a reasonable outcome. More to the point, it’s a shame that the shroud of secrecy has become so comprehensive that these individuals are needed at all.

At the heart of all of these problems is the loss of understanding about how all these different roles fit together in the total system of government. That system includes the population, and the mechanism for informing the population is therefore crucial. We can’t vote if we have no information upon which to base our decisions. There’s no question that our ignorance suits a certain segment of the political elite – but I think that our being informed would not necessarily be worse for any given component of any government. If what they’re doing is above-board, surely they have nothing to hide? I think I’ve heard that argument somewhere else too.

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