THE FOURTH ESTATE SEEKS POWER
1st June 2020
We are basically the moral compass of everything and everybody, we're the conscience of the world.
Alex Crawford Sky News Special Correspondant and Patron of the National Council for Training Journalists
I have a Vision of The Future, chum,
The worker's flats in fields of soya beans
Tower up like silver pencils, score on score:
And Surging Millions hear the Challenge come
From microphones in communal canteens
"No Right! No wrong! All's perfect, evermore.”
John Betjeman - The Planster’s Vision
In this 1945 poem laughing at and slightly horrified by progressive technocratic dreams Betjeman evokes an inhuman rationalist way of thinking that dreams of actually being able to deliver a perfect world through the means of science and mathematics. With our faith in big data we have only moved closer to such gleaming, metallic, nightmares. Referring to the COVID-19 emergency the outgoing bishop of York, John Sentamu, likened it to an earthquake out of any human control. It is hard to imagine that the result of another, this time submarine, earthquake, the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 would have been met in the same way as the Coronavirus situation has been addressed. In Sri Lanka 90,000 wooden homes were destroyed, 35,000 people killed and half a million displaced. Can you imagine a press conference in Colombo with ministers of the largely Sinhalese nationalist government where Tamil and other opposition journalists, cynically seeing an opportunity to topple the government, mercilessly excoriated the politicians for not having used perfect science to provide them with perfect foresight that predicted the event in all of its dimensions and for not having achieved a perfect state of preparedness in terms of coastal defences and disaster readiness? You can’t imagine it and it didn’t happen because such opportunism would have been rightly seen as heartless and cynical. The Sri Lankan journalists will have accepted what all sane people know; that we live in a fallen, imperfect world, that life is contingent, and that no scientist has 20:20 vision enabling him to see round the corners of our temporal condition. Disaster is a time for showing heart, sympathy, understanding and for pitching in in shared citizenship. In the West we witness a very different dynamic in operation between our journalists and the politicians trying to handle the current emergency.
To see this dynamic in action one has only to watch the daily COVID briefings on the BBC. What one immediately adverts to is that our journalists are taking Betjeman’s Planster’s insane, scientific dream as a given as if it is a shared myth or article of faith that everyone takes for granted. From the airy summit of a technocratic Tower of Babel a clairvoyant government with a God-like perspective is deemed to be able to deliver perfection and this assumption gives the press a curious power. Once accepted, such ludicrous assumptions give them a bottomless power to flay any government alive because no one can fail to fall short of such standards of perfection. As a result every press conference risks degenerating into a public whipping where the hapless government are gripped in a vice the two sides of which are formed by a hostile media and a perception that they can magically dispense Wellsian perfection to all.
Press conferences begin to resemble a kind of Pozzo and Lucky relationship, of the type seen in Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot. In the early part of the play (things degenerate later on) the arrogantly imperious and bombastic Pozzo walks the incoherent Lucky around on the end of a rope as if he is a dog. Our government looks increasingly like the hapless Lucky dancing helplessly to the tune of a merciless press who sting them incessantly with new criticisms. And, of course, most of the liberal press at the briefings hate Boris Johnson’s ‘populist’ government and need little excuse for exercising such power to the full to the extent that they are acting more or less as an active arm of the loyal opposition.
Their psychological domination has mutated into quasi-judicial power. Given the unimpeachable assumption that the government always fails press conferences change from exploratory inquiry and scrutiny into court room cross-examinations or post-disaster inquiries avant la lettre as if time itself has been reconfigured. Ministers, no longer merely the accountable but now the accused, are interrogated in a thin-lipped, inquisitorial, exacting and forensic manner (grim-countenanced Laura Kuenssberg and Robert Peston come particularly to mind) by hacks who feel it is isn’t even necessary to speak to heavily burdened Secretaries of State with common courtesy. For this is what our press has become.
It was Edmund Burke who first coined the term ‘the fourth estate’, noticing the new role in Parliament that the Press gallery was beginning to play in an increasingly liberal democracy. It was, and still is, a privately-funded, informal and unofficial one (that conferred no formal authority on them and did not exempt them from the usual responsibilities of citizenship) but an important one that governments had to take into account. And this is fine until the press begin to get self-aggrandising ideas above their station or estate.
Now, just as self-dramatising adolescents do, every reporter thinks they are Woodward and Bernstein heroically engaged in the Watergate enquiry, ‘speaking truth to power’ etc rather than just ordinary citizens participating in democracy. Of course their role is to subject the government to a degree of impartial scrutiny but this does not mean that, Kevin and Perry-like in their attitude to adults, they assume that the government, and especially a Tory one, begins in, and rarely leaves, the wrong. They are supposed to understand that the liberal conversation can only take place if there is an establishment in place to act as interlocutor in that conversation and to protect us from a Hobbesian state of nature in the first place. This alone should lead them to treat the offices of state with more respect.
However, in recent times, our press have de facto arrogated to themselves the role of unacknowledged legislators of the world performing a sacred duty or, perhaps, hanging judges looking to trap ministers in inconsistencies and gotcha moments where a knowing, derisive and scathing style of address comes to the fore as they expose the government for the lying reprobates we, supposedly, always knew them to be. The perfect example of this was the frenzy to prove Matt Hancock to be a charlatan over his very mathematical 100,000 testing target. Never mind what this meant to real people suffering from the disease or the lockdown or whether they cared about such numbers, all the press hounds could see was an opportunity to skewer and perhaps cripple the minister busy with running the show. If this had been the 1940 Blitz the equivalent would have been tripping up Ack Ack gunners as they ran to their stations as the sirens sounded. Some of the attacks from the press, such as a BBC Panorama programme packed with Labour activists and an assault by the Sunday Times looked almost like the actions of 5th columnists in a war.
We live in an information age and in that age the true cultural battleground is control of the narrative. It used to be the case that one of the prizes for the victor in a war was the right to write the history of that war. The scrabble now is for the right to write the present moment and even the future before it happens and to form it in your own political image. This is why so many ‘Fact’ and ‘Reality checkers’ have sprung up in the press. They are all attempts to seize the cognitive ground and to interpret and shape narratives in their own way. The modern press have realised, as Goebbels did, that, in human affairs, cognitive power is the power.
But we now have the spectacle of a dangerous, arbitrary power being wielded without the responsibility of the ordinary citizen. For the press are out of control and suffering from delusions of grandeur. It is noteworthy recently that, not content with their other arrogations, the press have even begun to assume a further Olympian, God-like power whereby they act as self-justifying first causes or prime movers of events. In the recent Dominic Cummings furore as they reported the 'outrage' in the country it was difficult not to ask whether they were reporting after the supposed event as they should or whether they created the outrage by "putting rocket fuel under it," as the Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen described it, because they felt outraged.
The remedy to this is public figures and politicians who are adept enough to dethrone them using better than they do their own weapon – cognitive discourse. What we need more of is Jordan Peterson routing Cathy Newman or Helen Lewis at their own game live on television or Jacob Rees-Mogg calmly, gently and politely dismantling preposterous assumptions and arguments on-screen or on air as he does so well. It’s a pity we have seen little of him since he was moth-balled before the election. Perhaps Michael Gove or an emboldened and recovered Boris could take the war to them. I wonder if there are enough politicians around of the right calibre to redress the balance.