Whenever debates over journalism’s role in empowering citizens within democratic societies take place, the notion of the press as a ‘fourth estate’ invariably surfaces as a point of contention. Participants may well harken back to descriptions of Britain in the first half of the eighteenth century, when a lively array of unruly – albeit almost exclusively wealthy, white and male – voices were beginning to circulate in news journals. These voices were willing and able to take issue with the Crown’s conduct and Parliament’s legislative performance, and vociferously so. Jürgen Habermas (1989), in his well-known treatise on the public sphere, argued that these commercially-based journals were constitutive of a growing ‘public spirit’, one intent on replacing what had been until then a ‘party spirit’. If this challenging, often enraged temperament found its expression in publications such as John Tutchin’s Observator (1702), Daniel Defoe’s The Review (1704) and Jonathan Swift’s Examiner (1710), for Habermas it is Nicholas Amhurst’s Craftsman (1726), together with Edward Cave’s Gentleman’s Magazine (1731), which signalled that ‘the press was for the first time established as a genuinely critical organ of a public engaged in critical political debate: as the fourth estate’ (1989: 60). Indeed, with the decline of private clubs and the coffee houses, the latter being a principal forum for the circulation of news of the day, the public was now largely being ‘held together’ through an independent press advancing ‘professional criticism’ (1989: 51). Over the years, this conception of the fourth estate has routinely served as a form of shorthand to register the conviction that the citizen’s right to freedom of speech is best protected by a market-driven, advertising-supported media system. Its advocates tend to be rather passionate in their belief that journalism is charged with a noble mission of providing members of the public with a diverse ‘market place of ideas’ to both inform and sustain their sense of the world around them. This responsibility places the news media at the centre of public life. In other words, to the extent they facilitate the formation of public opinion regarding the pressing issues of the day, democratic control over governing relations is made possible. The performance of this democratic imperative is contingent upon the realisation of press freedom as a guiding principle, it follows, safeguarded from any possible impediment associated with power and privilege. In contributing to the ‘system of checks and balances’, the news media foster
popular engagement, thereby helping to underwrite a consensual process of surveillance – watchdogs nipping at the heels of the elite – whereby state and corporate sectors will be responsive to the shifting dictates of public opinion. As arenas of arbitration, these institutions allow for clashes over decision-making to be expressed, adjudicated and ultimately reconciled, ensuring that neither cumulative nor continuous influence is accorded to a single set of interests. Flash-forward to today, however, and these laudable platitudes about media and civic empowerment – for that is how they resonate, at least to my ear – risk seeming anachronistic. One may point to examples where the news media have succeeded in afflicting the comfortable while comforting the afflicted, to borrow a dusty phrase, but in the main they tend to be found seriously wanting in their fourth estate obligations. The contributors in this volume explore the reasons for this state of affairs with great insight, so we may adopt a complementary line of enquiry for our purposes here. Of particular interest will be the emergence of what some commentators are describing as a ‘fifth estate’, namely a realm of citizen-centred newsmaking (often labelled ‘citizen journalism’) actively supplementing – and, in some instances, supplanting – the mainstream news media’s role in covering breaking news. In the next section, we turn to a recent example of a legitimation crisis for the British state where these alternative reportorial principles and protocols came to the fore, enabling us to better consider their wider significance for thinking anew about the media, political participation and empowerment.