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Regulating the Fourth Estate

The regulation of the press remains a dominant issue in modern society that saw the explosion of the power of the web in facilitating real time delivery of news and information to the audience. One the one hand is the need for the state to regulate content, especially in the light of potential risks to national security. State regulation is also designed to protect varying rights of private individuals from invasions of their privacy by the prying eyes of the press. On the other hand is the basic tenet of constitutional democracy upholding and promoting the freedom of the press.

Also considered as the Fourth Estate, the press has risen to be an important and integral component of modern and democratic society. In fact, the enjoyment of press freedom is considered as a critical benchmark of the state of democracy of a given society. Content-based censorship by government regulating bodies continued to be a hotbed of criticism from the media industry. Varying schools of thought have been developed, illustrating the relationship of mass media with the society and vice versa.

This essay will revisit leading paradigm supporting state regulation and self-regulation. This will illustrate the philosophical underpinnings of the exercise of press freedom, with greater emphasis on media ethics and professionalism. Towards the end of the essay, a satisfactory alternative will be explored. Regulating the Fourth Estate: State Regulation versus Self-Regulation Historical Review of the Evolution of the Fourth Estate The increasing role and literacy of the print media has led to the evolution of the concept of “The Fourth Estate”.

It was a term not bestowed by the ruling elite but rather won as a result of the radical overhaul of the political, social and economic systems in old Europe during the Enlightenment (Schultz, 1998). It is referred to as such in reference to the first three “Estates” that actually pertained to the basic institutions of political governance. Slightly departing from the original conception, the three Estates now pertain to the different branches of the government in modern democratic set up. At any rate, the press gradually won recognition and eventually took an important place in the socio-political arena.

In an ideal modern setting, the press is considered as a key partner of the government in representing the variant views of the population and in venting both the government’s position and its critics on different issues. The state of mass media behavior nowadays, however, is far from ideal. The media and entertainment industry is a formidable component of the economy. It is a multi-billion industry in the United States and other parts of the world, with the exception of state-controlled media in less democratic countries.

Most media companies marry the interests of the society in the dissemination of information and the more basic business interests of its owners. Independence of the media remains a contentious issue and is still a favorite subject of debates among those who profess it and the regulatory bodies of the government. Development of Mass Media It is widely recognized that the people should have access to information and views in order to formulate their own opinion and political judgment.

This is another important feature of a representative democracy, apart from the ability of the people to independently elect their political leaders. The past centuries witnessed the transformation of the socio-political structures in many parts of the world. Absolute monarchical and totalitarian regimes eventually declined because of the increasing spread of political thoughts and opinions of those who advanced radical changes through revolutions and civil wars. Eventually, the press gained considerable power, filling the void left by state-sponsored information agencies. Birth and development

The invention of movable printer by Gutenberg saw the explosion and rapid spread of information in earlier societies. The people no longer relied heavily on the ancient scribes, who were mostly monks writing religious articles and books. Enterprising individuals invested in the acquisition of equipment and items necessary for faster reproduction of printed materials. The primary motivation, however, was profit, as some entrepreneurs saw the potential of raking in bigger income by granting privileges to those who wanted to use their prints as venues of their ideas and interests.

It was only later that the press would be mainly motivated by influence, which is actually the power to create, modify or entirely change socio-political views of the people. Philosophical underpinnings One of the hallmarks of a representative democracy is accountability. Earlier political thinkers, such as Hobbes and Rousseau, among others, developed the idea of Social Contract between the people and their government. Their theories eventually found their way in numerous declarations of independence and constitutions of modern democratic countries.

In other words, there is an implied consent from the people to form a government and that the government is a mere creature of the people expressing the wishes of the government. Soon, different checks and balances were designed in order to enhance transparency and accountability. These mechanisms were primarily institutionalized in order to prevent abuse of governmental power. One question, however, arises on this issue. Because of the sheer enormous amount of official transactions in a modern society, it is not realistic to expect that each branch of the government, i.

e. executive, legislative and judiciary, will be transparent to the people at all times. This brings to the fore the basic concern on who guards the guardians of people’s interest (Kieran, 1997). Between the society and the press, there is also an implied contract as to the nature, purpose and manner the press discharges its function. The press does not only report basic information on the doings of the government. It is also involved in explaining the significance of every event or government action the press people perceive as socially important. Regulation of Mass Media

State regulation and censorship The state, acting through the government, takes a keen interest in the preservation of public order and safety. This is mainly derived from the Social Contract theories developed by some Enlightenment political thinkers. As such, the government takes upon itself the power to regulate the manner and content of the information being shared by media entities. Censorship of the press remains a menace to the full expression of the freedom of the press. Said freedom has been enshrined in international law and in most constitutions of modern jurisdictions.

Democratic countries instead exercise only regulatory powers pertaining to the press and the mass media as a whole. This is usually discharged in the form of the more rudimentary censorship mechanisms, such as denial of access to information and the restrictions placed in the dissemination of specific content-based material. State regulation of the media soon developed and took more complex and varying forms, such as the grant of franchise for the use of the airwaves, business registrations, taxes and libel laws, among others (Hoffmann-Riem, 1996).

Necessarily, the underlying public interest is the regulation of things that the society in general puts so much value (Feintuck & Varney, 2006). Self regulating ideal and media ethics Public interest and the need for good governance require a full discussion of public affairs. This is one of the philosophical bases of the freedom of the press. No less than the Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrines press freedom as one of the most important attributes of a democratic and modern society and could only be suppressed when there is clear and present danger to the security of the state.

As indicated earlier, the level of exercise of the said freedom is used as an indicator of how representative a modern democracy is (Van Belle, 2000). In practical terms, it is considered as the ability to espouse any idea or information without being censored by the state’s regulating bodies or being threatened with prosecution for doing so. All democratic countries still maintain regulatory agencies and mechanisms pertaining to the exercise of the freedom of the press. Despite strict adherence to such fundamental right, there is still a larger public interest that the state must uphold and preserve.

On the one hand is the need to maintain public order and safety, and the prevention of chaos because of erroneous or untimely dissemination of critical information. Currently, even the most democratic governments may still restrict or control the content and spread of information during national emergencies. Most common form is censorship of materials deemed as threats to national security. On the other hand is the obligation of the government to protect and promote the privacy of individual persons.

Many have seen the wanton disregard of some press people, commonly the paparazzi, of every person’s right to be left alone in the privacy of their homes, for example. There are plenty of cases involving celebrities complaining and suing press people, even going to the court for injunctions. One of the most notable cases was the one filed by the late Jacqueline Onassis against a paparazzo, although many quarters in the media still hold the view that Onassis, because of her being a public figure and a former first lady, somehow lost a significant portion of her private domain to the public.

Media ethics were developed as a component of the paradigm calling for the self-regulation of the press in lieu of state regulation. Some of the main features are the respect for the privacy of other persons and impartiality in news contents. In fact, impartiality remains the strongest character of the self-regulating school of thought. Self-regulation, however, remains an extra dynamic and problematic concept. Many mass communication theorists still believe that self-regulation is very ideal, like the Utopian character of Marxist thought calling for stateless and classless society.

In more practical terms, most media empires are controlled by powerful individuals and corporations whose business interests overlap and extend to other realms of the bigger economy, such as advertising, entertainment, politics, housing, shipping and energy, among countless others. Impartiality as a self-regulative ideal remains subject to varying interpretations and eventual erosion since the public interest defining mass media and the press, in particular, is hardly divorced from the other business interests of those who own the media companies. Co-Regulation: The Better Choice

Having established that strict self-regulation still remains an ideal goal, the issue now is the need for a satisfactory solution. Co-regulation marries both the interests of the government in preserving and protecting public order and safety and the private interests of the press in ferreting out the truth and explanation behind any government action or event. Despite accusations of biased media among bigger media empires, the society in general still has the bigger interest of preventing abuses committed by the government and its instrumentalities.

Despite the adherence to lofty goals of protecting public interest, many governments still commit acts that are eventually detrimental to the general interest of the governed, necessitating a fuller discussion of public interest. Co-regulation recognizes both needs. It may be exercised through minimal oversight mechanisms to check abuses and biases committed by media entities. The burden of spending for the regulatory bodies will be shifted to the private sector.

Co-regulation, therefore, institutionalizes an industry-based policing among the ranks of those who practice press freedom, among others. Many countries in Europe have now taken interest in co-regulation as an ideal alternative to self-regulation or direct state intervention in the media (Harcourt, 2005). Bibliography Feintuck, M. , & Varney, M. (2006). Media Regulation, Public Interest and the Law. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. Harcourt, A. (2005). The European Union and the Regulation of Media Markets.

Manchester: Manchester University Press. Hoffmann-Riem, W. (1996). Regulating Media: The Licensing and Supervision of Broadcasting in Six Countries. New York, NY: Guilford Press. Kieran, M. (1997). Media Ethics: A Philosophical Approach. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Corporation. Schultz, J. (1998). Reviving the Fourth Estate: Democracy, Accountability, and the Media. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Van Belle, D. A. (2000). Press Freedom and Global Politics. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group.

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