That journalists, collectively termed members of the Press or simply the Press occupy a very interesting position in all modern societies is a truism in that no one can be totally indifferent to them. They trade on one of the most powerful tools known to man – information. You need them one way or the other: for your work; for your business; for your health and safety; for entertainment, and much more. While consuming what they have to offer, you either hate them or love them or operate somewhere along the emotional continuum. It is virtually impossible to be absolutely non-committal to the way and manner they exercise their pens.
Certainly, no group needs the press much more than politicians. When they are eulogized, everything is just fine. When the press as much raises questions on the necessity and or plausibility of public policy, or the approach adopted by politicians or public office holders, what comes their way could range from a mild rebuke to assassination. Although, as usual something else took centre stage to take attention away, the ‘deleting’ of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi is still hanging like a stubborn fish bone in the throat of the young Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman and de facto ruler of the oil-rich kingdom.
The press is so powerful that it was christened the “Fourth Estate of the Realm.” Although the exact origin continues to attract debate, the term is generally credited to Edmund Burke, Irish politician, orator, author, and parliamentarian who was a member of the British House of Commons from 1766 to 1794 representing the Whig Party. Scottish philosopher and historian Thomas Carlyle was the first to attribute the use of the term Fourth Estate to Edmund Burke; Burke is said to have drawn attention of parliamentarians in his 1787 address to the existence of three estates in Parliament – the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners (townspeople), but noted that a “fourth estate” exists in the Reporters Gallery of the House of Commons and that group he said was more important than the other three.
The press has grown in stature and influence such that some describe it as the “fourth power.” Some even regard it as a fourth branch of government, safe that it is independent (where it is) mainly because it does not draw funding from public source (where it is). Politicians can go the extra mile to court the press, and when it turns on them, also go the extra mile to exterminate it. It is not a very exciting profession when you are praised and blamed simultaneously and someone out there is always after you when you tell the truth.
The dislike, and sometimes outright hatred of the press, is it a new phenomenon? The answer is a big no. It appears journalists have never been really liked particularly by politicians. Take a very exciting quote by Irish poet, playwright, and wait for it, journalist!
In old days men had the rack. Now they have the Press. That is an improvement certainly. But still it is very bad, and wrong, and demoralizing. Somebody — was it Burke? — called journalism the fourth estate. That was true at the time no doubt. But at the present moment it is the only estate. It has eaten up the other three. The Lords Temporal say nothing, the Lords Spiritual have nothing to say, and the House of Commons has nothing to say and says it. We are dominated by Journalism.
This was published in February 1891 in the Fortnightly Review under the title, “The Soul of Man under Socialism.” Oscar Wilde was, once upon a time, a columnist and even the editor of The Woman’s World magazine up to October 1889. It is like he turned on the press when he jumped ship, just like Donald Trump, once a star in the reality television shows (broadcasting) named The Apprentice and The Celebrity Apprentice for a cumulative period of fourteen years has now turned against the press.
Members of the press however are their worst enemy. When you compromise truth and standards, and in particular truth, you chip away at integrity which must be seen as the most critical ingredient in the soup made available to the public by journalists. And nothing can be as distressing as a press person demanding favour – mainly cash – to ‘kill’ a news item.
Certainly, the press is a body of human beings and therefore are prone to the ills, strains, and stresses that are bedevilling the society. If a press person is under threat of eviction where he/she is living because rent has not been paid, how does he/she turn down an offer when his/her employer is either unable or unwilling to provide money for rent? It is a sad thing to say but it is real. Way out? Employers have to do the best they can to provide for the most basic things of life – housing, food, clothing, education of children, and health – so that the ‘naturally’ upright can look someone in the eyes and say, ‘go with your money; I will write and publish the truth.’ Not much can be done about the ‘naturally’ greedy.
Nowhere in the democratic world is the press more imperilled than in the world’s number one democratic nation – the United States of America (USA). The country’s President has openly and repeatedly described the press as “enemy of the people.” The entire press (minus Fox News and Rush Limbaugh) runs ‘fake news,’ of course when what is published, or broadcast affects his sensibilities. I think Donald Trump is facing what sociologists describe as approach-avoidance conflict. He loves to hate the American press, describing the practitioners as enemies of the people. But can Donald Trump survive for twenty-four hours without the press? I doubt.
He may however be requested to listen to the ageless words of British philosopher and literary critic, Dr Samuel Johnson in Boswell: Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides where he wrote: “A man who tells me my play is very bad, is less my enemy than he who lets it die in silence. A man, whose business it is to be talked of, is much helped by being attacked.”
Donald Trump’s primary business is to be in the public eye. That has been so all his adult life. He cannot do without the press. But the press will do without him when he is out of office. For now, the relationship is symbiotic and symbiotic relationships do not admit of the contrast – parasitism. At the worst, let Trump and the press consider commensalism – a relationship in which one party gains without hurting the other. Is that possible? It is open to debate; for now, the President of the USA and his press are very bitter adversaries. Unfortunately, unlike banana republics and others less so, there is little Trump can do to a virulent press. Perhaps whoever coined the name ‘press’ was referring to the transitive press which means among other things, to obtain something from somebody by asking persistently or forcefully. It is simply the nature of the profession to ask for information persistently if not importunely.