Fake News and the Fourth
FAKE NEWS and THE FOURTH ESTATE
(Article accepted by The Irish Times in January 2017, but not used.)
The immediate cause of the UK’s Brexit crisis was Mr Cameron’s ill-judged resort to a referendum as a means of dealing with the double threat of UKIP and the strong euro-sceptic element in his own party.
But behind this disastrous tactical error is the alarming gulf the vote revealed between the governing and the governed, the great mismatch between a very large section of the general public and what has been loosely termed the elite, or to put it another way, between those who are the ‘recipients’ of government, and those who are in some way involved in the ‘delivery’ of government. These latter include not just Ministers, MPs, party activists and bureaucrats and Eurocrats, but everyone with involvement in political debate through their professional roles in academia, business, media, trades unions, or otherwise through civil society, personal interest and so forth.
This is not an exclusively British malaise; there are signs of it across Europe, in the United States and around the word.
How has this come about? Many years ago, when parliamentary democracy was in its infancy, Edmund Burke, reportedly, coined the term ‘the Fourth Estate’. Thomas Carlyle records that ‘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.’
Burke left the Commons in 1794 before there was any designated Reporters’ Gallery, but from his early days at Westminster there had been unofficial if at first illegal accounts of debates appearing in London news sheets.
The ‘Three Estates’ in Parliament were its three vital elements – the Crown, the Lords and the Commons. What did Burke mean by calling the reporters ‘the Fourth Estate’, and putting it not just on an equal footing with the Three, but above them, deeming it ‘more important far than they all’?
The term is now generally applied to the mass media, but Burke was talking about one specific function of journalism – the public, and independent reporting of the business of the House of Commons – its debates, its decisions and how they were made. In an age of revolutions – industrial, American and French – this was also revolutionary. It brought important sections of ‘the people’ into the political debate on a daily basis, not just at election time.
It took more than a century for that potential to be fully realised through universal suffrage, widespread literacy and the mass media. The detailed and daily reporting of the affairs of Parliament could lay a claim to being ‘the fourth Estate’. Or it could have until a few decades ago.
We today are living through another revolution, the information or communications revolution, and the Fourth Estate has become a ghost estate. Newspapers have been dying off and are now near to an endangered species. Newspaper readership is declining quickly. Even ‘quality’ papers devote little space to Parliamentary affairs and the great majority of the people get their ‘news’ from TV, radio, and social networking.
The revolution in technology means we now have an avalanche of information, but more one of misinformation than information, dispensed in large part outside the traditional disciplines of journalism. The ‘blogosphere’ is not a form of journalism. Television audiences for sport, soap operas, cookery, quizzes, celebrity this and that far outnumber those for news and political discussion. Radio stations have endless phone-ins where politics often feature, mostly through anonymous assertions broadcast unchecked and unanswered. The result is the new term ‘fake news’.
Two examples: The BBC has taken to sending out reporters to do vox-pops on each latest twist in the Brexit saga. Asked if he now regretted voting for Leave in June, one earnest citizen declared no, because we would now be free from the rulings of that Human Rights Court in Strasbourg. There was no response from the reporter, no comment back in the studio, no indication that the BBC had just broadcast a demonstrably false statement – a piece of ‘fake news’. No reminder that the European Court of Human Rights is not an EU institution.
Late one night on radio – could have been BBC Radio 5, or LBC – a caller asked the phone-in host did he know that it was now a criminal offence to criticise the European Union. The presenter admitted he was not aware of that. The caller told him it was true, he could point to the relevant ruling of the European Court; the presenter hurried to terminate the conversation, adding that if true that was very disturbing.
What on earth was the caller on about? In 2001, an Englishman, Bernard Connolly, employed by the European Commission, had been sacked when he published a book – The Rotten Heart of Europe - without prior permission from the Commission as required by staff regulations. Mr Connolly challenged his dismissal at a tribunal, and lost, whereupon he appealed to the European Court in Luxembourg, pleading infringement of his freedom of expression.
His appeal was dismissed, the Court confirming that Mr Connolly was in breach of his contract of employment, and lawfully dismissed. The Daily Telegraph, widely regarded as among the best quality London newspapers, reported the verdict under the headline ‘Euro-court outlaws criticism of EU’ – another piece of ‘fake news’.
Last year’s referendum campaign was awash with such non-journalism. As one commentator has put it “The widespread triumph of misinformation over fact leaves traditional journalism fighting for its existence.’ It also has the most serious implications for elective democracy. The blogosphere and the phone-in now constitute an open all hours invitation to anyone and everyone to make assertions and express opinions, often anonymously, on complex issues, and to have them ‘published’ to audiences of thousands if not millions.
The European Union is a highly innovative and, frankly, complicated form of multi-national governance. The business of government generally today is extremely complex; decisions on economy, environment, social welfare and many other areas are multi-dimensional, requiring expert input and informed debate. A parliamentary democracy cannot function properly without a Fourth Estate capable of giving public access to its workings, and some capacity to understand the issues.
Without this politics turns to populism, with politicians seeking power through emotional appeals to nationalism, xenophobia, anti-migration, Euroscepticism, and other feelings remote from rational inquiry.
The last thing we need is the referendum, a mechanism which invites the public at large to give a once and for all yes or no to an apparently simple question, but one the answer to which can have massive repercussions. It is also often on a topic about which the general public will not have, and cannot be expected to have, detailed knowledge.
That is why we have a parliament, and why that parliament needs a Fourth Estate.
Articles, speeches, etc.
A letter from Leave.EU dropped through my letter box, the first communication I have seen from the quit the EU campaigning group. It began with a bizarre assertion:
‘…In 1975 we voted for a Free Trade Area known then as the Common Market.’
the United Kingdom in 1973 had left a Free Trade Area (EFTA) and joined an
Economic Community, the EEC. One reason why the Common Market
had become, in the UK, the name generally used for the
European Economic Community was perhaps because it highlighted
one of the main differences between EFTA , which the UK had
taken the lead in creating in 1960, and the more closely
integrated EEC. Both groupings had free trade within the
group, but the EEC’s ‘common market’ traded with the rest of
the world as a unit, while EFTA members’ external trade was
So in 1975 the citizens of the UK were approving the switch in Government policy, first made in the early 1960s by Harold Macmillan and later confirmed by Harold Wilson. They were endorsing the decision to leave a loose free trade area and join a much more comprehensive economic community formally committed to ‘ever closer union’.
Much of the Leave campaign is ill-informed, or deliberate distortion. Here is a list of my own reasons for voting to stay in.
Ten reasons for voting to stay
1 To vote to leave is to vote for abandonment of the European policy espoused since the 1960s, by both Labour and Conservative governments, and by the Liberals. That policy still has majority support in those parties and in the House of Commons.
2 It is not true to say that the European Union today is radically different from the European Economic Community the UK joined in 1973. The EEC was then already formally committed to the achievement of full economic and monetary union, a commitment endorsed by the UK at the Paris summit of October 1972. The goal of a single European currency was already under discussion.
3 The UK has formally endorsed all the various Treaties which have expanded areas of competence transferred from member states to the EU, have improved the decision-making mechanisms of the union and have approved the membership of 18 new member states.
4 There is no commitment to the creation of a single European super-state. The goal of ‘ever closer union’ set in the Treaty of Rome in 1957 and endorsed by successive British governments over the past 43 years, is a form of words which encapsulates the commitment of member states to develop the unique form of cooperation and sharing of authority, and of sovereignty, which is the European Union. Each step to a ‘closer union’ has to be in the form of a new Treaty agreed by all member states.
5 European laws are not made by ‘unelected bureaucrats in Brussels’. The power to legislate lies with the Council of Ministers, and the European Parliament – the Ministers are politicians representing the democratically elected governments of the member states, the MEPs are politicians directly elected by the citizens of Europe.
The European Commission is both a bureaucracy and a unique supranational college of 28 political appointees nominated by the member states, appointed by the Council of Ministers, and approved by the European Parliament. This college has the key role of proposing legislation, but only within areas of competence assigned to the EU by the Treaties unanimously agreed by the member states. Commission proposals become European law only if they are agreed by the Ministers and the Parliament.
6 By leaving the EU the United Kingdom would not ‘reclaim its sovereignty’. It would still be bound by the NATO Treaty to go to war in defence of any member state under attack; it would not be free to trade how and where it wishes – international trade today is not free trade, but trade regulated by regional, global and bi-lateral agreements. The UK’s ability to negotiate favourable terms as a single state would be much weaker than that of the EU.
7 The United Kingdom is currently the second strongest national economy in the EU. In a Union founded to ensure the economic and social progress of all its peoples and in particular to reduce the backwardness of its less favoured regions it is obvious that the cost of running the Union and financing its programmes must fall on the wealthier states. At present eleven member states are net contributors – that is the money they pay into the EU budget is less than the total they receive from EU funds. The UK’s net contribution in 2014 is reckoned to have been the equivalent of 1.4% of the UK’s total public expenditure.
8 Since January 1993, under the EU’s Single Market regime, there has been no visible physical border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – no custom posts, no check points, no long queues of commercial vehicles waiting to cross. No proponent of Brexit has yet indicated how the UK would ‘reclaim control of its own frontiers’ on the island of Ireland. The Common Travel Area agreement between the UK and Ireland covers only the movement of people, not goods.
9 When the movement towards European integration began in the aftermath of World War II its prime objective was political, not economic; it was to bind together the nation states of Europe, particularly France and Germany, in a union which would make war between them both unthinkable and impossible. The way to do so was by means first of a common market, and then by broader economic union. The goal was not to eradicate nation states, or to suppress national identities, but to contain them within a wider European organisation and identity.
The result was a unique experiment in supranational governance – not a federation, certainly not a super-state, but a binding set of institutions with a supra national core. From the six member beginning in the 1950s, it has grown to 28 member states, with others still anxious to join. For the UK to walk out in a fit of jingoistic pique would be tragic for Europe, and disastrous for the UK.
10 The institutions of the EU played only a minor, if helpful, role in restoring a measure of peace in Northern Ireland. Much more important is the idea of a European identity which can be shared by both sides of the apartheid-like British-Irish divide enshrined in the Belfast Agreement. If we all can see ourselves as European, then we cannot be all that different from each other. If we are living in a European union, then it may begin to matter less whether our immediate address is Irish or British.
No problem in Lusaka - In January 1997 Dennis Kennedy, then a lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast, travelled to Zambia to discuss an EU-funded project involving several European universities and colleges in developing countries. Here is his diary of the week in Lusaka.