The health of our Fourth Estate

D. N. Bezboruah

There are legitimate reasons now to be worried about the health of the Fourth Estate in India. But before I venture to refer to its ailments, it might be appropriate to talk about how the term Fourth Estate came to the applied to the news media, particularly to newspapers or the press in the first place. In his book On Heroes and Hero Worship, Thomas Carlyle attributed the origin of the term to Edmund Burke who used it in a parliamentary debate in 1787 on the opening up of press reporting of the House of Commons of Great Britain. This is how he describes it: “Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but in Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.” Earlier, the three accepted Estates of Parliament in Great Britain were the Lords Spiritual, the Lords Temporal and the Commons, meaning the Church, the king and the nobles, and the people (in a sense represented by the House of Commons). Ever since that speech of Edmund Burke in Parliament in 1787, the Fourth Estate has come to mean the press. In very recent years, there has been a further extension of the term Fourth Estate to include the electronic media and the internet as well. Yochai Benkler, author of the book The Wealth of Networks (2006) described the “Networked Fourth Estate” in a May 2011 paper in the Harvard Civil Liberties Review. Here he explained the growth of non-traditiol jourlistic media on the internet and how it affects the traditiol press, using Wikileaks as an example. And so, while the generally accepted meaning of the Fourth Estate is the print media (in 1787 there was no television), there is a growing tendency in India today to use the term “Fourth Estate” to refer to the electronic medium as well. Before Edmund Burke’s use of the term Fourth Estate to refer to the press, Fourth Estate had other meanings in English. Earlier writers had used the term to refer to lawyers, the British Queen’s consort and the proletariat.

I have at least two reasons for extending the term Fourth Estate to include all media used for news presentation and not just the press. One is that it is pointless to create artificial barriers between presenters and dissemitors of news through newspapers and over television. After all, their objective is the same though their means of achieving it is different. The other reason is that those working for newspapers and those working for television channels are really in the same exciting, exalted and sometimes hazardous profession of jourlism, and there ought to be scope for diversification and for a two-way traffic between the two. And if there is ill health among jourlists of the print medium, jourlists of the electronic medium cannot remain entirely uffected. I am talking about the Fourth Estate of the 21st century, and we cannot think of having two watertight compartments.

Many of us believe that newspapers were completely accurate, objective, unbiased and honest when newspaper publishing began. This is far from the truth. After all, newspapers cannot have an existence of their own.  They are as good or as bad as the people who work together to publish them. In fact, the early daily newspapers published from the Netherlands, Germany, France, Italy and Britain often failed on the counts of accuracy or correctness of news, objectivity, freedom from bias and so on. News gathering and reporting were far more difficult tasks in those days, and often because of the ibility to check and double check on the veracity of a news item, some incorrect news items did get published and corrections had to be frequently published thereafter. But a sort of evolution got under way, and news reporting became more and more accurate, objective, unbiased and professiol partly because of the feedback newspapers got from their readers. But the evolution that overtook newspaper production was far more spectacular. Slow typesetting by hand was replaced by hot-metal type-casting, and slow flatbed printing was replaced by rotary printing machines that printed both sides at the same time on webs of newsprint that were cut, folded, refolded and ejected as complete newspapers after printing.  The latter half of the 20th century witnessed a move from letterpress printing to web offset printing and to computerized typesetting that revolutionized newspaper production altogether. In 1987, I watched a Sunday edition of Der Telegraph of Amsterdam being printed in heavy web offset printing machines manufactured in Germany. A 128-page newspaper (with 64 colour pages) was being printed at a speed of 75,000 copies an hour and getting packed in bundles of 100 newspapers and larger consignments of several packets in huge packages handled by fork-lifts and loaded on to trucks.

However, my purpose here is not to talk about how newspapers are printed and distributed. I am concerned with the health of the profession of jourlism and how this has affected the business of gathering and dissemiting news. And I have reasons to believe that the Fourth Estate in India is in poor health. When I changed my profession from teaching to jourlism at the age of 49, I seemed to have made two mistakes. I was changing my profession at the wrong age and getting into another one from the wrong end—from the top instead of working my way up from the bottom. As Editor of The Sentinel for 22 years, I attached great importance to the tenets of good jourlism, and impressed upon my junior colleagues the imperatives of accuracy, objectivity, honesty, courage, lack of bias and correct use of the language. I seem to have got somewhere, because The Sentinel was getting recognition not only in Assam and the Northeast but also elsewhere. And our strategy of getting our Delhi office to cut out important editorials and hand them over to the appropriate ministries was able to elicit positive action from Union ministries.

Today, more than 10 years after ceasing to be an enthusiastic member of the jourlistic fraternity, I am appalled at what is happening to the profession. We have about a dozen newspapers of Guwahati dependent solely on the revenue earned from government advertisements for their survival. How can these newspapers even pretend to be objective, unbiased and honest? What is the code of ethics that the owners of such newspapers can give to their jourlists? Can they be instructed to be brutally honest? And how often does a jourlist of such a newspaper get sacked summarily for having attacked a corrupt and anti-people government? So where is the room for any kind of healthy jourlism in such a dispensation? But that apart, what kind of salaries can jourlists expect from newspaper publishers who have to depend entirely on government advertisements for their survival? Most of them are paid pittances that are often much lower than what illiterate chauffeurs of ministers get. Many jourlists are beginning to realize how difficult it is to remain honest, objective and unbiased on an empty stomach in a milieu that is beginning to reap the seedy benefits of a “paid news” culture. And it is the stark contrast between what a good jourlist earns in Delhi and what he can expect to earn in Guwahati that is so painfully poignt. I know of newspaper editors in Delhi, who are paid Rs 3 crore a year. How many good editors in Guwahati can expect to earn even a tenth of that?

Perhaps the worst scourge of jourlism in India today is what is called paid news. There was a time until about three years ago when you could distinguish between news and advertisements. In any case, newspapers that believed in ethics often put the letters advt at the very bottom of an advertisement if there was any possibility of the advertisement being confused with a news item. Today, we often have no means of distinguishing between a news item and what is actually an advertisement of an individual. And this malaise has spread so fast like an epidemic that it has become an accepted professiol culture for a jourlist to accept money to publish some news or for a staff reporter to report an important event. The situation is not different in the case of those in the electronic media. So we often have an efficient go-getter getting run down and destroyed by jourlists and a rogue getting praised to the skies either because he has paid good money or because someone in power has influenced the jourlist concerned. The system has introduced strong disincentives for good workers. This cannot be allowed to remain.

My basic question is: how can a profession get any worse? Newspapers the world over have gone through an evolution over a couple of centuries that made jourlism a highly respected profession. We now need another evolution that will pull us out of the mire that we find ourselves in and put us back where we really belong—in the world of clean and honest jourlism. In the last few years of life allotted to me I would like to propose a toast to such a fond hope and find out how many more of our profession are willing to join me in this pious wish.

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