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 patently misleading 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.