Hello. We’ve been thinking about the various skills necessary for journalism. But we also need to think more about why journalism is so special, why we all feel entitled to evaluate the state of journalism, and why it’s so crucial for us as citizens. In his book, Popular Journalism, John Hartley sees journalism as part of a revolutionary force, inextricably bound up with modernity and progress. He writes, “modernising political revolutions are always, amongst other things, journalistic. There’s an outburst of literacy along with liberty.” But why should journalists do anything beyond entertain and attract eyeballs, attract readers, attract viewers? Why does journalism hold itself to an ideal that extends beyond its legal and commercial obligations and seeks to actively nourish public discourse?
Well, we could in the first instance look to the personal qualities of journalists themselves, the personal integrity, the thoroughgoing dedication to their trade. Our journalism school here at Strathclyde, as well as many others, we see the brightest and the best come through committed to a job that they see as driven by the values of truth and shared understanding. But that doesn’t altogether explain the broader sense of attachment that we all feel with good journalism. And why is there such widespread disappointment whenever there are serious lapses in the world of journalism? Now to understand this, I think we have to see journalism in its historical context. And there’s a few concepts available to us that may help light our way.
Now the first of these is the fourth estate. Now many of us will have heard of the fourth estate. The fourth estate’s become an item of the popular lexicon. And we’ve seen it used as the title of novels. We’ve seen it inspire the name of Hollywood blockbusters. More often than not, when we use the fourth estate nowadays, we tend to use it in a semi-ironic way to bemoan press standards. But its roots, and where the fourth estate comes from, illustrates to us a particular role that the press occupies and in particular its relationship with those in power. What do we mean by the fourth estate? Well, what are the first three estates?
These are the occupants of the UK Houses of Parliament, the peers, the Lords, the bishops, and the elected members of Parliament, each of them representing their own constituencies. In 1840, the celebrated essayist Thomas Carlyle wrote, “in the reporters’ gallery yonder, there sat a fourth estate, more important than they all. This is where the real power lay, not amongst the Parliamentarians, but amongst the journalists, who had the power to define them, these Parliamentarians, and had the power to communicate to the public what was going on in Parliament in their name.” But even Carlyle’s words are laced with irony. The press wields its fantastic power. They’re an informal estate of the realm, just like elected representatives.
But are we altogether content with this arrangement? Do we really trust the press with this power?
For us to place this, this power and responsibility, in a critical context, we can look to the idea of the public sphere. The public sphere is described in the writings of Jurgen Habermas as the place in which public opinion is formed. It’s that nominal space where we all gather together and discuss issues of shared importance and share our views with one another, where we have a conversation and emerge from that conversation more enlightened than we were when we entered. For inspiration, Habermas looked to the coffee houses of 17th and 18th century London. These are places where men– and they were almost exclusively male, but males from all sorts of backgrounds, all sorts of trades would come together.
They would drink lots of caffeine. And they would talk. Messages would be traded between coffee shops. Like-minded individuals would form alliances. And these alliances would disintegrate as soon as the next topic of conversation came along. This was a new type of communicative space, where people from all sorts of different backgrounds and with all sorts of different interests could come together and have a shared conversation.
However, the public sphere as a physical space was never meant to be taken literally. It’s less a physical space than an ongoing set of conditions for conversations about politics and other important matters. The only quality that we should be dogmatic about is that the public sphere is situated in the civil realm. That’s to say this public sphere is separate from those other conversations that take place in government and in other places of instrumental power. So the public sphere retains its integrity by being separate from those spaces in which power is exercised. It discusses power. It discusses power in a separate space. And there are three sets of circumstances that need to be in place for a public sphere to operate.
The first of these is that there has to be a knowable government or civic authority. For us to discuss the performance of those in power, we need first of all to know who these people are. This is ordinarily a straightforward matter of identifying the responsible governmental departments or the responsible minister. But good journalism is partly about identifying the real decision makers and can often exercise its power by exposing the correct individuals or institutions to public account. Secondly, a public sphere needs the means to communicate outcomes from the public to government. And this is where journalism comes into its own. Journalism plays an important role in letting us know what the political classes are saying.
But also, journalism plays a crucial role in allowing the political classes to hear what we are saying. Now the extent to which the news media do this accurately is a subject of much debate. Justin Lewis, Karin Wahl-Jorgensen, Theodore Glasser all give us very critical accounts of the portrayal of public opinion by the media. Even so, in an environment dominated by social media, conventional journalism still plays the most important role in mediating our conversations with those in power.
We also need the conversations that take place within the public sphere to be rational. Now, this is no easy task. We need the information that we trade to be true and substantial. And we need journalists to play the role in ensuring this is the case. We also need to allow the quality of the arguments to guide our thinking, rather than our prejudices and predispositions. In everyday life, this is no easy task. How many of our conversations about politics are as carefully ordered and as rational as we would like them to be? But perhaps most seriously of all, Habermas argues that outside forces and influences are corrupting the public sphere, or at least altering its character.
We will look at some of these later.