THE MEDIA AS THE FOURTH ESTATE OF THE REALM: FACT OR FICTION?


 

Being a paper presented at the Triennial Delegate Conference 2023 of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), Kogi State Council held at the NUJ Press Centre Lokoja on 13th December, 2023

 

By

 

 

 

 

Professor Gbenga Ibileye
Provost, College of Postgraduate Studies,
Federal University Lokoja

 

 

PROTOCOL
Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, accept my profound gratitude for providing me the opportunity to address this eminent and august audience on this auspicious occasion of the Triennial Delegate Conference 2023 of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), Kogi State Council. I congratulate the leadership of the NUJ in the state for its constructive engagement with the myriad challenges confronting the state as it evolves into a dynamic sub-national entity. While some of the challenges may be proving daunting, I encourage you to remain unwavering in your courageous and professional commitment to the emergence of a truly egalitarian society. Accept my hearty felicitation for this triennial conference and my best wishes for its successful completion.
The Media as the Fourth Estate of the Realm: What’s that?
Scholars generally believe that the term Fourth Estate of the Realm has its origin in the 19th century and is traced to the British statesman, philosopher and orator, Edmund Burke and another English thinker Thomas Carlyle who, in 1841, first used the term “Fourth Estate” to describe the reporters’ gallery in the English Parliament as a “Fourth Estate more important” than the other three estates represented there. The other three traditional estates referred to by Thomas Carlyle were the church, the nobility and the townsmen, or commoners. The assertion of Carlyle was based on the centrality of the press compared to the other arms of government. The importance of the press in a representative democracy is twofold: it informs the citizenry and also serves as a feedback channel between the government and the people.
Three traditional estates in Carlyle views above have since morphed in different ways. For instance, the church, especially in non-Western democracies does no longer play the defining role of governance and central administration it played in the 19th century Europe. The same goes for the nobility, and to a reasonable extent, the commoners. The church in traditional European society was central to the political system and influenced policy formulation and direction substantially. In a way, the church was at the centre of the ideological core of the society. Its stand, somewhat reinforced and advanced cross-territorial adventurism of the great powers of the time. For instance, the role of the church in slave trade and eventually, colonialism buttresses this assertion. Nobility, similar to the church, dominated the philosophical formulations that justified political and governmental policy directions. In modern terms, one can decipher the arms of government- executive, legislative and judiciary- as successor structures of nobility as conceived in the 19th century. The commoners, a constant in the equation in every society, have been at the receiving end of the obnoxious policies enacted by the two other estates and from which they lack the power or strength to liberate themselves.
The press has remained recognisably distinct except for its own expected expansion and modernisation. The emergence of radio and television and, most recently, the internet with its varied social media derivatives, has changed the temperament of the press somewhat, without changing its known character significantly. One more thing that has changed is the mass media nature of the press. If the press of the 19th century was characterised as mass media, the phenomenal way the contemporary media permeates and is intrusive of every aspect of the society, makes it truly deserving of its name as the mass media
In an attempt to find justification for Carlyle’s designation of the press of his days as the Fourth Estate of The Realm, it has been submitted by media scholars that it is because the press has often played a significant role in shaping the course of politics, and viewed as an important force in government.
The press, from Germany to France and Great Britain, was the disrupter of that era, mostly operated by philosophers and ideologues, holding the church and nobles accountable to the commons while keeping the commoners informed and providing oversight to the other Three Realms of the Estate and acting as check to their powers.
Over time, technological advancement led to diverse ownership structures where nobilities, entrepreneurs, wealthy individuals, political figures and religious institutions owned these mass media, wherein their political and religious philosophies influenced contents in promoting their political and economic interests. From William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer, Rupert Murdoch, Ted Turner, Silvio Berlusconi, Baron Rothschild, Oprah Winfrey and Michael Bloomberg.  The traditional view of the Fourth Estate portraying the media as an impartial and objective purveyor of information, serving the public interest by providing accurate, balanced, and in-depth reporting was erroneous and often problematic.  As this ideal emphasises on the media’s role in scrutinizing the actions of those in power, safeguarding freedom of speech, and fostering an informed citizenry was influenced by the interests of the ownership in the nuances of reportage.
In the Nigerian context, as you are aware the beginning of the press was with personalities like Herbert Macaulay, Nnamdi Azikiwe, and Obafemi Awolowo, and later to the likes of Dele Giwa, Dan Agbese, Nduka Obaigbena, Dapo Olorunyomi, Omoyele Sowore, John Momoh, Raymond Dokpesi, etc .  These were prominent thoroughbred Nigerian intellectually inclined media practitioners who had their strong footings in scholarship and training, which translated to the high level of engagement that was evidenced in their writings and even in their carriage. They were elite thinkers who shaped the direction of governmental policies and politics in Nigeria. They attracted sufficient respect and dignity because of their high level of ethical conduct which revolved around the defining characteristics of the media which include accuracy, impartiality, objectivity, and transparency.  Accuracy refers to the correctness of the information presented, while impartiality refers to the absence of bias in the presentation of information. Objectivity refers to the presentation of information without personal opinions or feelings, while transparency refers to the openness of the press in revealing its sources and methods of gathering information. These were the defining characteristics of the press in the 19th century that also manifested in the Nigerian press at its earlier beginnings.   One could therefore see the engagements of Herbert Macaulay, Nnamdi Azikiwe, and Obafemi Awolowo in their anti-colonialism stands and the significant roles they played in the country’s struggle for independence. They were journalists who used their newspapers to advocate for the rights of Nigerians and to criticize the British colonial government.  The press at the period was mainly an activist press, that was interested in educating and liberating the people from the oppression and shackles of colonialism and advance the struggle for independence.
Challenges and Concerns
In view of the phenomenal growth and diversification of the press from its earlier monolithic character as print to the behemoth and variegated, technologically diverse media, the following questions arise:
How closely have the media lived up to these lofty ideas and reputation, especially in Nigeria?
Is the media living up to its idealized role as the Fourth Estate, or are we witnessing a descent into fiction rather than the objective representation of facts and reality?
The answers to these germane questions reside in the practice and recruitment processes of contemporary mass media practitioners.
In today’s media landscape, concerns have been raised about the erosion of these principles. In Nigeria for instance, the space has been so liberalised that it has become an all-comers affair, people without adequate training in journalism, mass communication or media practice find themselves writing, editing, reporting, and generally setting the agenda and nuances for the media and media analysis.  The advent of social media has further complicated the issues, where anybody who has access to a computer, mobile device and the internet and who can type any passable English, would call themselves journalists or media practitioners. This has led to some dangerous implications namely the compromise of professional quality in terms of the ethics of the profession, objectivity, fairness. Regrettably, the other ethical standards that guide the conduct of the profession are now sacrificed on the altar of the rise of sensationalism, biased reporting, and the spread of misinformation through various online platforms. This has also fuelled scepticism about the media’s ability to fulfil its Fourth Estate responsibilities. The advent of “fake news,” agenda-driven reporting, and the blurring of lines between news and opinion has raised doubts about the media’s commitment to presenting facts rather than fuelling fiction without the principles of verifiability and reliability of their sources.
Further, another of the fundamental challenges facing the media as the Fourth Estate is the increasing polarization of public discourse. In an era marked by echo chambers, algorithm-driven content consumption, and the influence of partisan media outlets, the media’s role in fostering informed debate and facilitating a shared understanding of societal issues has come under scrutiny. Rather than serving as a unifying force, the media has been accused of exacerbating divisions and cultivating an environment where conflicting narratives and opinions lead to fragmentation rather than consensus. Also, the commercialization of the media industry has raised questions about the extent to which profit motives influence editorial decisions and the prioritization of sensationalism over substance. The pursuit of higher ratings and readership, coupled with the pressures of 24-hour news cycles, has led to a focus on click-worthy headlines and attention-grabbing content, often at the expense of nuanced analysis and investigative reporting.
Implications and Prognosis
The implications of these challenges are not just for the survival of the profession itself,  but also for society and the other Three Realms of the Estate. The concept of the Fourth Estate, underscores the media’s significance as a vital pillar of democracy, serving as a watchdog, shaping public opinion, keeping the public informed, holding the government and other institutions accountable and contributing to the functioning of democratic societies.  Therefore, amidst these challenges, it is essential to recognize that the media, as the Fourth Estate, continues to play a pivotal role in safeguarding democratic values and ensuring transparency in governance. While instances of biased reporting and misinformation are cause for concern, it is important to acknowledge the enduring value of independent journalism in upholding accountability and exposing abuses of power.
The relationship between the media and the public is mutually reinforcing, and it is incumbent upon both to uphold the principles that underpin the Fourth Estate. Citizens have a responsibility to evaluate the information they consume critically, seek out diverse perspectives, and hold media outlets to account for their reporting practices. At the same time, the media industry must prioritize transparency, accuracy, and a commitment to public interest in fulfilling its role as the Fourth Estate. The fact of the matter is that for democracy to thrive, it requires informed citizens. No Institution can operate without knowing how to conduct itself and the rules on which it is to operate. In a representative democracy, the role of the press is twofold: it both informs citizens and sets up a feedback loop between the government and the people. The press makes the actions of the government known to the public, and voters who disapprove of current tendencies in policy can take corrective action in the next election. Without the press, the feedback loop is broken and the government is no longer accountable to the people. The press is therefore of the utmost importance in a representative democracy.
The charge is therefore for the press to continue to self-regulate and reinforce its professional and ethical standards as these are essential in restoring public trust as a reliable source of information.  Efforts to combat misinformation should continue and be sustained, media literacy should be enhanced.  Additionally, fostering diversity in mass media and embracing a commitment to fact-based reporting can contribute to revitalizing the media’s role as the Fourth Estate.
Conclusion
In conclusion, the concept of the media as the Fourth Estate remains a vital framework for understanding its role in democratic societies. While concerns about misinformation and partisan reporting abound, the media’s capacity to inform, scrutinize power, and facilitate public discourse should not be underestimated. The evolution of mass media presents both challenges and opportunities, and the preservation of the Fourth Estate depends on a concerted effort to prioritize factual reporting over fiction-inducing contents. As we navigate the complexities of the modern media landscape, the enduring ideals of truth, accountability, and public service must guide the media’s pursuit of its Fourth Estate responsibilities.
Thank you for listening


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