Monday, July 16, 2018

THE Fourth Estate has for centuries been accorded a certain respect as a key element of democracy – similar to the deference given to lawmakers and parliamentarians. That this was how the perception of the press evolved within European society was remarkably positive, and necessary.

In today’s world a fifth estate has risen up, one whose unfettered influence must be considered. It is the influence of the individual, enabled by, an almost overnight phenomenon in relative terms, a fully burgeoned social media.

History has taught us harsh lessons that propaganda is a powerful tool – those who have studied Stalin will not be unfamiliar with the lengths a despotic leader will go to, to hold onto personal power. Those same students will have laughed at the transparent nature of the propaganda used by Stalin and others, and considered it next to impossible for autocracies to rise in a similar vein in the third level educated, modern, western world. People could not be so stupid, nor societies so vulnerable again.

But propaganda has never been more prevalent, its use so endemic. It has just taken a new form, wielded by political leaders, who have recognised how people’s weaknesses and misgivings can be targeted and harnessed via a potent social media.

People have for two decades now been seduced by reality television but the era of the cult of the personality somehow jumped from being the preserve of a motley crew in a house to becoming a key player in houses of parliaments.

Thankfully, some things have remained the same. The hunger among enough young people to study journalism and enter newspapers, radio, TV, to delve and question and probe and write and reveal, has been steadfast. That is reflected in the paid for media in Waterford, where news organisations continue to prioritise and direct resources at the discovery, extraction and dissemination of news.

Newspapers rely on advertising revenue for their businesses, but in good, responsible newspapers, such as the Waterford News & Star, that is not at the expense of the story told in the public interest.

It is not easy, particularly in local media when we tell the less savoury news frankly and honestly; the news of communities, organisations, of political decisions, tragedy, crime and people close to home.

It is arduous, but a task the Waterford New & Star never shirks from, and which has on occasion had cause for this newspaper and its staff to endure considerable antipathy from those who would rather the pages told another story or a story in a different, more diluted way.

Another challenge is to tell the niche news, the news of minorities, of the arts, of multi-culture, of the environment… the list goes on and is extensive because it reflects the broad nature of people and society. A good newspaper or media organisation does it all, without fear or favour. Ireland is replete with such a robust, professional media. In that regard, the fourth estate is alive and healthy.

But in the era of social media, where the true media must now compete with fake news, with unsubstantiated rumour and gossip, where anyone who can type words onto a platform considers themselves a de facto journalist, and where value is no longer attached to paid-for content by highly skilled and qualified reporters and writers, journalism and the Fourth Estate has come under threat.

There should be a healthy frisson between the powers that be and the media, a respectful understanding of the merit of the latter. This has been eroded, with President Donald Trump giving license to the wholesale vilification of the media, without basis, describing the Fourth Estate – the watchers – as the ‘enemy of the people’. When you speak publicly, particularly if you carry a powerful level of influence, you have a responsibility to remain measured, not to add to the fake story as perpetuated by those for whom the real story is threatening. Contrary to the old saying ‘sticks and stones may break your bones but words can never hurt you’, there is no undoing the influence of the spoken and written word. It is why we as a country have legislated for defamation and incitement to hatred.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar failed in his responsibilities as a leader, when, in the US last week, he sympathised with Mr Trump’s view of the media. Our Taoiseach chipped away, in an unjustified manner, at a fundamental and crucial arm of our democracy, at a time when, instead, he should be looking to other European countries and how they champion, subsidise, support and enable the survival of, rather than deride, the essential Fourth Estate.

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