The Fourth Estate myth

At a party last week the blog fell into conversation with someone who was shocked by the Murdoch media reporting on ABC audience share and the fact that the facts in the story were not actually facts but rather a distortion of significant proportion.

The conversation rapidly became a discussion of the fourth estate concept with the blog arguing that the concept of the media as an independent, fearless fourth estate truth teller was always a myth and that the times when media had acted in that role were the exception rather than the rule. The blog has been trying for years to get one of its quotes to appear in the media. The quote is in response to the question from journalists covering that perennial story – do PR people distort media coverage and have too much influence on the media? The response: name a PR person who has done more to distort media coverage than a Northcliffe, Murdoch, Hearst, Beaverbrook or Packer. Needless to say the blog is still waiting for a journalist to use the quote.

Radio is much easier. In an ABC discussion in which Wendy Bacon and the blog participated the quote did get a run. And when Wendy Bacon suggested that PR people were misleading journalists and influencing the media the blog did manage to get in the fact that this suggested journalists must be either stupid or lazy to allow themselves to be misled.

Nick Davies’ new book Hack Attack demonstrates just how bad the media can be with a forensic analysis of the criminality, bullying, immoral – and endemic – activities of the UK Murdoch and other tabloids. Significantly for Fourth Estate believers his earlier book Flat Earth News looks at falsification and distortion in the wider media – including the serious broadsheets – and complements the fascinating material in Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science on MMR ‘research’ and other examples of media distortion of science and medical research.

Outright falsification has always been common in the media from the 18th century onwards and even in the 20th century the UK tabloids could give front page treatment to a psychic channelling Stalin in support of Neil Kinnock. But more subtle has been the imposition of a particular world view by a media culture which defines what it news and what is not. As has been said of the New York Times – its real significance is the extent to which it defines the limits of acceptable US political debate.

But the biggest limit is the structural approach the media take to gathering news. While the I.F.Stones of the world searched high and low for data – as have a number of Australian journalists – the majority favour a more restricted approach which Davies himself reveals much about. Early in Hack Attack he says: “It’s fair to say that reporting is a great deal easier than most reporters like to pretend. People tell you things; you do your best to check them out; and then you tell a lot of other people what you’ve found. There are some hidden subtleties in there and a few simple sills, but generally speaking, there is nothing very clever about it.”

Davies also avoids holier than thou attitudes to media outlets when he says: “What is the difference between a reporter on the Guardian and a reporter on a paper like the News of the World? Don’t believe anyone who tells you that it has anything to do with moral fibre, or intelligence, or sensitivity. There are bastards and moral weaklings, good guys and idealists in both worlds. All reporters are really very similar. They run on a flammable psychological mixture, like petrol and air, a volatile combination of imagination and anxiety.”

The problem with this approach was highlighted by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (a journalist as well as a great novelist) in a 1996 speech in Los Angeles when he bemoaned “The excessive use of quotations and false or true statements (which) permits innocent or deliberate mistakes, vicious manipulations, and venomous misrepresentations that give the news article the dimensions of a deadly weapon.” Marquez also highlighted the problem with ‘sources’ and whether journalists who rely on sources should be asking “whether (the journalist) isn’t an easy tool of the source who passed on information however he chose, arranged however it suited him best…..the bad journalist thinks the source is his very life – above all, it is official – and for that reason he sanctifies it, pampers it, protects it, and eventually establishes a dangerous complicit relationship that even leads him to underrate the integrity of a second source.” The Marquez comments can be found in a recently published, newly translated into English, collection of his speeches, I’m Not Here to Give a Speech. They range over a teenage graduation talk to his Nobel Prize address.

There have been some great moments in journalism – but there have been many shameful ones. Nick Davies has been responsible for some of the first but there are far too many reporters who are responsible for the second. Perhaps this is why Keith Windschuttle, in his Maoist days,was so keen on street theatre as a counterpoint to media monopolies