Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Whatever happened to the Fifth Estate?

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on October 16, 2006

fourth es-tate noun. journalists, the press or the media in general, in addition to the ‘three estates’ (the Lords spiritual, the Lords temporal, the House of Commons).

The media, in one of it’s key roles in a democracy, is seen as the fourth estate, the watchdog of those in power, recording their movements and holding the powerful to account. But who watches over the watchers?

The presence of a fifth estate is vital for keeping the media in check. But in Britain, a country hailed for the doggedness of its journalists, the press has no accessible watchdog. There is of course the Press Complaints Commission and (for broadcasters) Ofcom, who set the standard and deal with complaints.

But there’s no publication, no programme which regularly takes on the people with power over information.
And even worse, it seems attempts to set up a Fifth Estate have been quashed by fat cat editors in the most backhand of ways.

It’s known, for example, that media journalists face a constant battle with the papers and broadcasters they write about to stop critical articles going to print. Concerted efforts have taken place to stop papers running their own media pages…ever wondered why just the Guardian and the Independent run a weekly supplement?

There’s even allegedly a backroom deal between the owners of the Telegraph and Associated Newspapers (owners of the Daily Mail) to ensure no coverage critical of the Telegraph is printed in the Mail, Metro or Evening Standard.

So far from having a healthy press in Britain which monitors itself to avoid abuses of power, the Fifth Estate function has been silently suffocated.

It wasn’t always this way. In the late 80s good ol’ Raymond Snoddy (now of Newswatch fame) hosted a Channel 4 programme called Hard News which gave tabloids and the rest a weekly spanking for bad behaviour. It even won awards.

Of his new programme, Raymond Snoddy says “The idea of a programme like Newswatch is long overdue” and he couldn’t be more right. But we need more. We need a new programme that hauls the press and broadcasters into the dock and ensures they only do good in our name.

Creative producers could develop a Top Gear style format, live/as live studio based, with a fun cheeky tone that puts the assertions made in print and in broadcast to the test. Where Clarkson test drives a new car, the new Snoddy would test drive a sleazy allegation made by a Sunday tabloid.

It would be an entertaining programme as well, not to mention a shocking one on occasion. But it should be something to scare the press into maintaining high standards, so sad occurences like the hounding of Neil Kinnock and then the Tories and the Hutton affair are less likely to happen.


3 Responses

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  1. Chris Doidge said, on October 17, 2006 at 5:10 pm

    That sort of programme sounds like a good idea, just so long as it’s not hosted by the insufferable bore Ray Snoddy.

    Incidentally, on the point of newspapers having media sections for self-reflection, I’m not sure that’s why the Indy and Guardian have them at all. I think it’s more a case of trying to hook media types into buying their papers and selling some juicy media recruitment advertising. Excepting some pieces by people like Alex Thomson, I think it’s self-indulgent rather than self-reflecting.

  2. Chris Doidge said, on October 17, 2006 at 5:11 pm

    Do you know what though? There’s nothing stopping some upstart young kids [cough] putting this sort of show together and broadcasting it on the internet!

  3. Ru Owen said, on October 19, 2006 at 3:23 pm

    Hello Adam,

    Perhaps the fifth estate are the so-called ‘citizen journalists’ (not that I agree with that term). By sending in their pictures of breaking news, or publishing them on blogs, they’re not supplanting journalists (as hysterical media types seem to think) but rather shaping the news agenda by saying to journalists “I want you to cover this” or “I don’t trust your version of this or that, so I’m doing it myself”. It’s like a bigger, better version of the newsdesk except nobody can afford to ignore the phones ringing.

    Btw, I’m a student at Westminster and David Dunkley Gyimah pointed us at you.


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