The Fifth Estate

The story of Wikileaks is complex and goes far beyond the world of "goodies and baddies". Soon it will get 'the Hollywood treatment' and this is likely to be annoying for anyone with a brain. The trailer has already irritated me, both the title and a key quote in there seem misplaced. However, this is an uber-geeky post written by a man whose enjoyment of both Avatar and Batman has been compromised by their perceived ideological shortfalls.
"Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth." - Oscar Wilde
Just because you quote a famous figure doesn't mean what you're saying is any more or less true. Poor old Mr Wilde is so famously quotable that he ends up looking frequently wrong when de-contextualised like this. People don't always tell the truth when granted anonymity, obviously. In fact there's a counter argument to this quote which carries more weight in this context, it involves the ring of Gyges a philosopher called Plato and the fact that when hidden from view people often do the wrong thing.

Give a man a mask and he tells lies?
In short the ring of Gyges was a magick ring which made the wearer invisible. It was the template for Tolkein's Ring used in The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings. In both Plato and Tolkien's narratives invisibility causes the users to become less accountable for their actions and ultimately lose their common sense of right and wrong as they end up becoming merely self-serving.
What's great about Wikileaks is it has removed masks from many of the institutions it reports upon and revealed abuses of state power which had previously only been suspected. They've proved Plato's premise and disproved poor old Oscar's misused quote*[1]. An institution veiled behind a lack of accountability is as dangerous as Gollum, or any other character, wearing the ring of invisibility.

However demolishing the use of that quote is equal to shooting fish in a barrell compared to my main irritation, the film's title. I'm going to try in short form to explain both the ideas it references and my take on them. That so few in our society understand this debate is partly a cause behind the mess we're in though, so if you can follow my argument here I implore you to spread these notions as far and wide as possible.

The term "the fifth estate" is related to The French Revolution where, broadly speaking*[2], society was supposed to be divided up into three "estates": the nobility, clergy and commoners. During the revolution a so-called Fourth estate emerged and they were seen as those who had no voice, land or representation. The peasants, revolutionaries and so forth. Over time their point of view was supposedly represented by an emerging popular media, the pamphleteers and their successors the newspapers. What's key to this though is that we've speaking of the popular press.

The key point is that "popular media" was supposed to be the voice of the Fourth Estate but over time people have forgotten this and nowadays when people speak a "fourth estate" they generally mean, the media industry itself rather than those it speaks for.

Notions such as a "free press" tie into the idea that this "fourth estate," if censored or attacked, can do a lot of damage to the establishment. Also it was thought that it had an important job to do in that it could keep the other estates, and even the King himself, in check by forcing them to be accountable for their actions.

Fast forward to our society as it is now and most people agree that "the media" in the UK and US has, by and large, been failing in its job of holding the establishment to account. I believe this is because in the intervening time we've witnessed the emergence of 'broadcasters', who are all licenced by the state. They muscle in mainly during the Second World War where state approval and censorship was the norm. In particular the BBC was a vital part of the UK's war effort, spreading pro-establishment content to much wider audiences than the papers had ever managed.

However to confuse broadcasters with the papers is to make a huge mistake. In the UK they face far stricter laws as regards what they can and cannot say when compared with newspapers who are defended by laws written when "the estates" were understood. "Freedom of the press" is an idea which comes from a different age and it's telling that there's no equivalent term related to television or radio. In those industries it's widely accepted you cannot say or do anything too "offensive" and more importantly it is always the establishment who makes the final call on that intensely subjective word.

Once you understand these points, and it's tricky enough to explain them, you can see why the UK's Leveson Enquiry is so wrong, because they're trying to make a free press more like our state licenced broadcasters. They want the media to be more "respectable". Again, ask yourself who exactly decides what that means?
"Do not look at the faces in the illustrated papers. Look at the faces in the street" - GK Chesterton
The so-called Fifth estate is supposed to place the internet into a separate category from "the media" and in doing so totally misses the point. If anything what we're seeing at the moment is the emergence of the fourth estate's actual voice. Something the establishment has been terrified of ever since they watched the bloodied head of a power family splatter onto the ground in Paris. The internet, unlike the media, is literally "the people's voice". It is the fourth estate in the original meaning of the phrase. It is no wonder the establishment is so keen to tame it.

Previously there have been numerous characters who have stood upon a virtual plinth claiming to represent "the voice of the people". I've lost count of the number of politicians who say something is what "the people" want. The net strips them of this particular slight of mind trick. An unlicenced media will force them to step up their game as long term a licence to broadcast will become irrelevant so newcomers who call themselves "broadcasters" will come to understand their positions in a way they didn't previously need to.

There is no need for a "fifth estate" and to suggest there is attempts to allow our media off the hook. The internet is replacing it and those of us who welcome that must defend our right to free speech in the process. Only someone making a Hollywood film on behalf of the establishment would wish otherwise.

Maybe they've just not considered the issue?


[1] I actually cannot be arsed to google it, this piece was written in a bit of a rush, it's something to do with acting or writing if I remember correctly. He was right, in context, I think.

[2] Academics love splitting hairs over this one. I am aware it's open to debate. Even so my criticism of a new 5th Estate stands.


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