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The function of the Fourth Estate

by Robert McDonald, freelance writer and broadcaster and the author of Pillar & Tinderbox, The Greek Press and the Dictatorship, Marion Boyars, London, 1983, 29/2/2004

In the February 26 television debate for the March 7 Greek election the format was such and the questions were framed in such a way as to elicit points of view rather than factual responses that allowed comparisons.

The Fourth Estate is a vital component of the political process, serving as a two-way conduit between the government and the governed – facilitating the flow of information from politicians to the people and vice versa.

For it to perform its role properly, it must pursue a hierarchy of functions. First it must allow politicians to present their policies as they have packaged them. Second it must take that information, put it in context and analyse it. Then, and only then, should it comment from a particular perspective – political, moral, etc.
The complementary role, after having provided such information, analysis and comment, must be to reflect the views of the people. The Fourth Estate must collect the reactions, views, and opposing opinions first of the citizens whose lives are to be influenced, second of opposition parties, and third of groups such as non-governmental organisations and minorities.

If censorship in anyway intervenes in this dynamic flow – legal (prohibitions or prescriptions), physical (military, police or mob violence) or influential (advertisers, publicity agents, or spin doctors) – the democratic process is weakened.

In many instances the press and media blur the distinction between reporting and journalism. The presentation of information is slanted, the context ignored and the analysis tendentious. This creates distortion, which precludes independent, rational judgement by readers and viewers. It is its own form of censorship.

There is nothing inherently wrong with a publication or media outlet being a mouthpiece but this needs to be established at the outset so that the reader or viewer can take up the information bearing in mind its bias.

Two key problems in our Internet era are the massive volume of information available and the incremental rate of its change. The plethora is such that many recipients do not have time to gather and assess it all themselves. They seek it packaged in a pre-digested form that provides the essence, increasingly with the added demand of an evaluation of the associated risk.

This may be a practical way to cope in a society in flux but it can lead to prejudice rather than subtle appreciation. The journalist faces a double burden since most sources provide only selected information that portrays them in a good light, be they countries, political parties, companies or interest groups. The journalist must be even-handed and dispassionate in synthesising and distilling such information but must also be prepared to seek out alternative sources.

Television presents a particular problem since politicians and the media have evolved a parasitic symbiosis in which each feeds off the other, weakening the body politic.
Television news is infotainment. It is obsessed with personalities, the more glamorous the better. Even newsreaders are selected for their appearance. Political parties seek photogenic candidates. The persona of the individual is more important than the substance. Television is a medium that relays its message visually. Its oral content is peripheral. Cameramen, not reporters, make the story.

Politicians have learned to manipulate this, designing their activities around photo opportunities that illustrate the persona that they seek to project. President Bush flies to an aircraft carrier, dons a flight suit and declares victory in Iraq, illustrating US military might. Later he flies to Iraq and serves Thanksgiving dinner to the troops implying the bounty that America is bringing to the “liberated” Iraqis. News is stage-managed, frequently devoid of all but its visual content. Impressions are all.

An entire generation of young voters, raised on television and the virtual reality of video games, does not read newspapers and obtains the bulk of its political information in such an impressionistic fashion.

Newspapers are increasingly consigned to the role of commenting on an agenda set by television. The best provide analysis, going deeper into the subject of the day than television can. The worst simply provide opinion or comment on the television performance.

The February 26 television debate for the March 7 Greek election was a case in point. Instead of party leaders making themselves available for one-on-one grilling on their policies, it was proposed that there should be a debate, first between the two main party leaders and, at the last minute, between the leaders of five of the 20-parties contesting the election.

Debate pre-supposes that both sides are able to set out their positions on agreed issues so that the audience can assess for itself the validity of each side’s arguments. Broad subjects were agreed for this debate that should, ostensibly, have allowed comparison between the parties’ positions on different issues. But the format was such and the questions were framed in such a way as to elicit points of view rather than factual responses that allowed comparisons.

The consensus was that Pasok leader George Papandreou fared badly, unable to marshal his thoughts sufficiently quickly to get to the pith of his answers within the allotted time, while the more practiced New Democracy leader Costas Karamanlis was able to use his ninety seconds to shape perfectly crafted answers limited in substance. The press post mortem focussed not on what they said but how they performed.

One of the problems with television is that it is an inherently clumsy technological medium. Miniaturisation of equipment has reduced news crews from four – producer (someone who shapes the reporting of the event according to the requirements of the outlet), reporter, cameraman, sound man – to two (in some instances even one). But it still takes time to set up the camera, fix lights, run microphone cables and then co-ordinate their operation. Little is captured naturally because of the need to stage the moment.

The studio is the preferred option where an artificially stylish set can be created amidst an unseen chaos of gantries, cabling and industrial-strength lighting. The camera relays only what is captured in the frame.

(There used to be a British newsreader who lived on a house boat and would come to work in shorts and plimsolls. Donning a jacket and tie he would sit behind the studio desk and pronounce on world events. The camera caught only the serious upper half never straying below the desktop to reveal the scruff below. Did it matter? Not much because the man, for all his bohemian life-style, was well-informed and sensible, though had the camera captured his image it its entirety it would have conditioned many viewers’ appreciation of his gravity.)

Digital technology is changing the way in which sound and images can be gathered. In the first Iraq War massive outside broadcast vans waited behind the fighting lines to package video footage sent back by frontline crews and then to transmit it from portable, but ungainly, ground stations. In the second, only a little over a decade later, correspondents were able to go live to air from miniaturised camera and satellite systems about the size of a briefcase. While the quality was poor and picture and sound signals ill-co-ordinated, the development heralded a new age of flexibility in the gathering of images that, in short-order, will be refined.
Note, however, the use of the word images. The reporter can now file contemporaneously from the midst of the fire-fight – with dramatic pictures of bodies, wreckage and flaming destruction – but he or she cannot put that incident in context.

That is left to the intelligence officer providing the briefing at field HQ. The on-scene reporter may be able to provide the immediacy of the horror of war but not assess the strategy. That remains tightly controlled by politico-military information managers.

The camera can capture countervailing images of damaged homes and maimed civilians that can be broadcast even as the spin-masters speak but these do not provide an accurate explanation of what is actually going on. The viewer is left with a proliferation of images and information that do not cohere. Understanding is lost in the process.
For the Fourth Estate to perform its function properly, the press and media must do everything possible to prevent the manipulation of information and the creation of public opinion based solely on impressions. It must relay accurately what persons in authority say and then test this as rigorously as possible through the discovery of contradictory information, and the aggregation of alternative views. Finally, there should be detailed analysis and informed comment.

What if  “they” gave a photo-op and the Fourth Estate didn’t come?

Προσοχή: Οροί Χρήσης του διεθνούς Κόμβου (Portal) www.greekelections.com