Over the past couple of weeks in Australia, the main old media players in the newspaper sector, Fairfax Media and News Ltd have both announced changes to their business plans and an increasing focus on digital channels. Fairfax will lose 1900 staff, and News Corp is considering splitting its entertainment and publishing businesses. Of course we’re already hearing a bunch of commentators bemoaning the loss of the 4th Estate in Australia, but there are also a fair number of other perspectives that argue that the 5th estate – new media, dominated by social networks and electronic information gathering tools – has both the will and the power to operate as an alternative to the old 4th estate.
I think we are missing something here though. We assume that traditional media has been operating effectively as a Fourth Estate, we assume that social and digital media can be bootstrapped into a Fourth Estate role, and we assume that there is a need for a Fourth Estate.
It doesn’t take much investigation to discover that Australia’s media – both press and electronic media – have only a fleeting relationship with the main principles of the Fourth Estate. As the Leveson Inquiry in the UK has repeatedly demonstrated, the role of the press in influencing the machinations of governance, as well as skewing the understanding of the majority to suit their own interests, is profound. This makes them less of a Fourth Estate and more of an Oligarchy cum Plutocracy.
It is not unreasonable to speculate that collusion between governing officials and the press has contributed toward mass brainwashing in Australia. The number of people who refuse to believe in global issues such as anthropogenic climate change, while still maintaining that asylum seekers are a threat to Australia’s borders is not just depressing but baffling. Reporting that claims to be fair-minded suggests that ‘both sides of the issue need to be presented’. But that isn’t a principle of the Fourth Estate. Where there is overwhelming evidence in favour of one side, then the Fourth Estate should simply acknowledge this as truth and move on.
And then digital media: is it really in a position to replace the Fourth Estate of old? Unless we share the works of organisations such as Wikileaks, OpenLeaks and other leaks sites, through social networks, and unless we are continuously connected to that information stream, then frankly the success of digital media in providing stops and checks on governing organisations is limited. It’s not impossible, it’s just that the reality is very few people will bother to connect with that information stream. Ignorance, for most Australians, is apparently bliss.
Finally, we should ask the question: is there a need for a Fourth (or Fifth) Estate? I’m not arguing against independent analysis, or a need for democratic debate. I’m questioning whether the old systems of collective public representation to governing authorities are actually needed in a time when individual control over governance is growing in sophistication. As emergent technologies confer to individuals the power of control over their own environments, and over governing officials in a very personal manner, we need to ask ourselves whether the whole notion of a Fourth Estate is outdated, and whether the messy, occasionally legally tenuous activities of groups like Anonymous have already superceded old media.
Perhaps we are living in an age where the most significant consensual hallucination is that we need an institution, a place, or a vehicle for democratic action. What social and digital technologies provide for us is a conduit to anarchic control over our political, economic and social environment. It’s not democratic. But it is here. It exists. And we can’t put the genie back in to the bottle. And perhaps, we shouldn’t want to.