not the critical, independent observers that


Liberal Theory

Journalism is more than a commercial activity designed to make profits by selling news.

Journalism is a servant of democracy, the means by which people become informed about current affairs and the route by which they learn enough to make informed choices at the ballot box

Journalism serves the ‘public sphere’ – the realm in which citizens engage with one another in debate and critical reflection about the practices of the state. (Harcup)

Journalism has a quasi-constitutional role as a watchdog on the workings of government.

Journalism holds power to account

Who supports fourth estate theory?

Media proprietors


Many democratic politicians

Fourth Estate as Myth

News is a commodity like any other.

Newspapers are businesses like any other. They exist to make money not to hold power to account.

Press freedom is an illusion: the notion that anyone is free to start a newspaper or broadcaster has been nonsense ever since the industrialisation of the press.

Journalism privileges the explanations of the powerful.

News values are ideologically loaded. Objectivity is impossible. Balance is a lie.

Fourth estate theory was invented by journalists to add lustre to a sordid profession

Examples of Fourth Estate Theory in action?

Times coverage of Crimean War

W.T. Stead’s Maiden Tribute of Modern


Washington Post/Watergate

Andrew Gilligan/Today Programme/Dodgy


Fourth Estate failures?

What journalists call “news values” are actually

“ideologically-loaded maps of meaning”

Journalists are conditioned to choose stories of certain kinds. We give individual events greater prominence than long term social trends.

News does not have an independent existence. It is a product invented by journalists. There is no reality, only narratives constructed in a social, economic and moral context.

Powerful people have more access to news media than weak people.

Objectivity is authority in disguise.

The Fourth Estate Defined

“The notion of the press as a ‘fourth estate of the realm’ – alongside the Lords Spiritual (clergy sitting in the House of Lords), the lords Temporal,

(other peers) and the House of Commons – originated in the 18th century and gained ground during the 19th century. Initially referring to the parliamentary press gallery, the term became a more general label for the press as a whole, locating journalists in a quasi-constitutional role as

‘watchdog’ on the workings of government. This is central to the liberal concept of press freedom.”

Tony Harcup, Journalism Principles and Practice

Daniel Defoe on Lying Newspapers

“So widespread in London that it was ‘the jest of the town’ with neighbours asking one another ‘What is the lye of the week?’ Or what is the Lye courant for the day?

From Andrew Marr, My Trade

The Duties of Journalists

“The responsibility of journalists is in proportion to the liberty they enjoy. No moral obligation can be graver. But their duties are not the same, I think, as those of statesmen. To find out the true state of facts, to report them with fidelity, to apply to them strict and fixed principles of justice, humanity, and law, to inform as far as possible, the very conscience of nations and to call down the judgement of the world on what is false, or base, or tyrannical, appear to me to be the first duties of those who write.”

History of The Times 1841-1884

Inventing the Myth

“…increased sales could only be achieved if a newspaper could claim in some way to be independent, to represent public opinion, and to be able to give the public an authentic and reliable news service: in short a newspaper had to be worth buying.”

George Boyce

Inventing the Myth 2

“The legitimate press believed that, to survive and to thrive, it must take its place in political society and must cease to be regarded as either a pariah, or as a dangerous and revolutionary force. It must have its place in the sun, its recognised role to play in political life; it must occupy some kind of middle ground, between revolution on the one hand and subservience on the other. And to establish such a role, the press and its advocates devised a series of practical arguments considering the role of the press. They described a ‘political society destined to be created in the future…told for the purpose of encouraging men to hasten its advent. In other words, they invented a political myth.”

George Boyce, The Fourth Estate; The Reappraisal of a


Jeremy Bentham on Newspapers

“in this instrument may be seen not only an appropriate organ of the public opinion tribunal, but the only regularly and constantly acting one.”

James Mill on Newspapers

“So true is it,”

he wrote

“That the discontent of the people is the only means of removing the defects of vicious governments, that the freedom of the press, the main instrument of creating discontent is, in all civilised countries, among all BUT the advocates of misgovernment, regarded as an indispensable security and the greatest safeguard of the interests of mankind.”

Newspapers as Businesses

“Naturally, the opportunities provided…attracted people whose interest lay, not primarily in enlightening or informing public opinion, nor in criticising public policy, but in making money by giving the public what it wanted. – or at least what it was supposed by the entrepreneur to want.”

Failing the Ideal

They got into bed with politicians – in some cases taking money to advance specific policies or parties – and were often so close to the political machine that they seemed to be part of it – not the critical, independent observers that fourth estate theory proposes.

They did not achieve their potential. Governments in the nineteenth century were occasionally swayed by newspaper pressure – but on the whole they considered parliament a more effective check than newspapers on their freedom of movement.

Not all Victorian newspapers were in the business of informing people about public affairs. Many just gave the public what they wanted – sport, lurid crime reporting and scandals i.e. what the public was interested in NOT the public interest.

The Myth Established

“The paradox of the Fourth Estate, with its head in politics and its feet in commerce, can…only be understood if it is appreciated that the whole idea of the Fourth Estate was a myth”

George Boyce

News as Commodity

“A way of making money, just as selling bread is a way of making money”

John Wilson a former controller of editorial policy at the BBC

Not a Myth After all?

a British working man who invested a penny in a daily newspaper could become

by its aid a man of fuller information, better judgement and wide sympathies

,” than any of his ancestors who

“had to content [themselves] with gossip and rumour.”

Andrew Marr, My Trade