The 4th Estate versus the 5th Estate

Image credit:

People are starting to call Twitter the 5th Estate.

The “Estates” are the forces of power in our nation.  Traditionally, dating right back to medieval notions of status and hierarchy, the first 3 estates of the nation are clergy, noblemen and the commons.  In the eighteenth century, as printing technology became mass market relatively, the 4th estate – the Press – became as powerful in influence. 

One of the earliest references is from Thomas Carlyle quoting Burke from 1787 :

“Burke said there were 3 estates in parliament, but in the reporters gallery yonder there sat a 4th estate more important far than they all”.

For a couple of centuries that 4th estate has indeed been massively influential over the state of public opinion in the UK. The freedom of publications to publish opinion to sway the nation has been general and held sacrosanct. The editors and leader writers of the nation’s newspapers have had the right to express their views and deliver rallying cries to lead the nation to challenge the status quo, to criticize governments and to deliver sharp corrective lashes when entertainment media (like Channel 4 or the BBC) are believed to be getting out of hand.

Now we have Twitter as the 5th Estate.  Is it as powerful ?  It is certainly as opinionated (if not more so).  It differs from traditional publication in being unmediated, in being more sudden and of course more anonymous. 

When protests are organised by Twitter, when opinion and gossip spreads like wildfire online, this is unprecedented in speed and in scale. It also seems to have a sense of righteousness that even exceeds that of the traditional middle England and popular newspaper brands.

In the Times columnist Sathnam Sanghera spoke this week of his dislike of Twitter – that he’s fallen back in love with newspapers.  That newspapers give considered and thoughtful arguments (I think he means The Times in particular). He asks “when did Twitter become synonymous with public opinion?”

He’s right of course that the expression of opinion online is a far cry from a carefully crafted editorial view.  If the www has proved anything it has proved that an infinite number of monkeys with typewriters will not produce Shakespeare or anything like it.  Plenty of rants and strong rallying cries certainly instead.

I too love quality journalism.  But the power of new communication channels to influence and affect the mood of the nation is not to be ignored.

Well I like the 4th Estate and I like the 5th Estate –  but which is better?  There’s really only one way to find out…..

One Response to “The 4th Estate versus the 5th Estate”

  1. Tom Planer says:

    A really interesting post. I like quality print journalism too, but I always feel that reading just one news title leaves you very little other opinion than the one that paper presents. I would love to be able to read a complete cross section of views daily – The Times, The Guardian, The Mail (perhaps) and then decide what my personal standpoint is based on having a variety of arguments in front of me.

    Unfortunately I don’t have the time, but what twitter can offer is that cross section of views in an easy and manageable format. Unfortunately at times it can get a bit “lynch-mob” but as who I follow is up to me, I am also able to balance this out, something you can’t do with traditional press.