The Accountability of the Fourth Estate
It is often said that the media is the fourth estate. This not so palatable definition of the mass media was given to the print media by the communist school as a propagator of bourgeois culture. The concept of communism, and with it all that it stood for, has become at mater of the past, at lest for the present. However, within the confines of liberal pluralistic democracy, mass media is still perceived as the fourth estate, because it is the guardian of democracy and defender of public interest. Edmund Burke was quoted as saying that“…there were three estates in the parliament; but, in the reporters' gallery yonder there sat a fourth estate more important than they all”. Historian Carlyle, who brought this quotation to light, did so to describe this power of the media as the newly found power of the man of letters, and, by extension the newspaper reporter. In his account, it seems that the press are a new fourth estate added to the then conceived powers that be i.e. priesthood, aristocracy and the commons.
There are a number of thinkers all over the world who can be quoted as giving the media, more importantly the print media a power that is crucial, unlimited, and enviable. This importance of the fourth estate or whichever name you wish to call it by, is vital to the generic rights of human beings living in a democratic (or quasi-democratic?) society. Nothing must go unchallenged. In fact, the citizens of a country have every right to know what is going on around them.
In the present day Bangladesh, we see a proliferation of media of all kinds. There are many radio stations of diverse types, nine or more TV stations (and some more are coming) and innumerable newspapers. Quite a large number of these are dailies. For our discussion today let us leave out the periodicals and concentrate just on the dailies. The dailies give out today's news tomorrow. They write commentaries, special reports, post editorials, editorials etc. to make the readers aware of an issue or event and to form their own opinion about it. With some semblance of democracy established in this country after '91, the newspapers here have got a tail wind. Whether this means freedom of press is a question that still remains foggy because the government still reserves the right of controlling the insolent press by reducing their revenue allocation through the State sponsored advertisements. Unfortunately for us, the private sector, still being at its infancy, cannot support the print media adequately. Therefore, the twist in the papers' tail, if I do not like you, you are my enemy, is still in order. With the electronic media it is a different ball game alltogether. That medium is hot, both in terms of reach and popularity. So, even the private channels have to watch out, whether it is entertainment or information that they undertake to broadcast. Therefore, the powers that be are safe ---absolutely safe in terms of electronic media and a little less in print. Only some exceedingly brave scribes venture to indulge in truthful criticism that run the risk of being sorted out at a suitable time.
Being critical of the establishment is popular. But what if you cannot be as critical as you would like to be for the risk involved in it? Well, in that case you should shift focus on some one harmless and is not able to hit back. So we see some of our newsmen in some of our news papers extremely keen to select a weak adversary and wage a war against them. At this point I would hazard the question how far the mandate of the 'fourth estate' should extend in countries like ours? I would not have asked this question at all if many a zealots in the field of journalism would have behaved responsibly. We do not forget that a reader may be made to subscribe to a view along the line of a news report. The language or treatment of the report therefore, must be made with some degree of accountability. Recently a trend has started to show the people in custody on various charges with a painful expression; helplessly looking at the camera thereby drawing public sympathy. While only in the recent past these people were singled out by the journos as being insufferable in terms of corruption or other social vices. This is a kind of tantalisation for the sake of worldly gains does not augur well for the 'fourth estate'. There are many instances where a feeble few and their yet to be proven “wrong deeds” are singled out to further the sale of their newspapers. Most importantly, such flippant soap opera reports are used to add fuel to the fire of imagination and to titillate the readers. What is more tragic in a society like ours is that the victims of these misdemeanours are women. Especially women connected with show business. Women in a male dominated society where they have to continuously prove their innocence and prove that they have been wronged, deserve a break. This is what the representatives of the 'fourth estate' must realise.
(R) thedailystar.net 2008