With all the fuss as to whether Mark Latham is or is not a journalist, I started wondering why journos are referred to (amongst other things) as “the Fourth Estate”.
Following is an explanation and some comments:
- Although the term “Fourth Estate” was at various early times used to refer to lawyers, to the Queen of England acting on her own account separate from the King, and to “the mob”, today the term is used to refer to the Press.
- Prior to the development of the concept of the Fourth Estate, there were three traditional estates, or groups/classes, in society: the clergy (the First Estate), the nobility (the Second Estate) and the commoners (the Third Estate).
The First Estate, also known as The Lords Spiritual comprised those members of the clergy, mostly bishops, who sat in the House of Lords.
The Second Estate, also known as the Lords Temporal, comprised those members of the House of Lords who were hereditary peers, Law Lords, or Lords appointed for life.
The Third Estate is the House of Commons, the lower house, or "people's house" of the British Parliament, now the seat of government.
- The notion that the Press is the fourth estate rests on the idea that the media's function is to act as a guardian of the public interest and as a watchdog on the activities of government. Not everyone shares this view of journos, certainly Laurie Oakes does not see Mark Latham in this light.
- Although it is believed that the term was coined by Edmund Burke, the earliest recorded use of the term Fourth Estate to refer to the Press is in 1787 when Thomas Carlyle in his book On Heroes and Hero Worship wrote:
Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters' Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.
- In 1828 Thomas Macauley, in reviewing Hallam’s Constitutional History, wrote:
“The gallery in which the reporters sit has become a fourth estate of the realm."
- Oscar Wilde was not impressed with journos:
"In old days men had the rack. Now they have the press. That is an improvement certainly. But still it is very bad, and wrong, and demoralizing. Somebody — was it Burke? — called journalism the fourth estate. That was true at the time no doubt. But at the present moment it is the only estate. It has eaten up the other three. The Lords Temporal say nothing, the Lords Spiritual have nothing to say, and the House of Commons has nothing to say and says it. We are dominated by Journalism."