The story of Wikileaks is complex and goes beyond the Hollywood world of “goodies vs baddies”. Even so a big budget film is due to be released about it soon and it’s likely to be annoying. The trailer has already irritated me, both the title and a key quote in there seem misplaced.
“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” – Oscar Wilde
Quoting a famous figure doesn’t make what you’re saying any more or less true and poor Mr Wilde is so famously quotable he often ends up looking 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.
In short ‘the ring of Gyges’ was a magick ring which made the wearer invisible. Tolkein fans will recognise the concept as the template for ‘the ring of power’ used in The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings. In both Plato and Tolkien’s stories invisibility makes the users less accountable for their actions and over time they lose their common sense of right and wrong, ending up as selfish ‘immoral’ characters.
What’s great about Wikileaks is it has helped to remove masks from many of the institutions it reports upon and in doing so 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. An institution veiled behind a lack of accountability is as dangerous as Gollum, or any other character, wearing the ring of invisibility.
Unfortunately demolishing the use of that quote is equal to shooting fish in a barrell compared to my main irritation, the film’s title. That so few in our society understand the following debate is partly the cause of the mess we’re in so, if I can correctly construct 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, 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.
“Popular media” was seen as the voice of the Fourth Estate. 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 to.
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 keeping 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 licenced by the state. They muscled into the picture in the UK mainly during the Second World War where state approval and censorship was the widely accepted 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 and forming close likes with the military intelligence services, MI5 and MI6.
“Freedom of the press” is an idea which comes from a different age, it’s telling there’s no equivalent term related to television or radio. Both beasts are very different and to amalgomate them into one category of “the media” is a huge mistake, particularly in the UK where broadcasters face far stricter laws as regarding what they can and cannot say. With newspapers the situation is different because ‘Fleet Street’ is defended by laws written when “the estates” were understood. In TV and radio though it’s widely accepted you cannot say or do anything too “offensive” and 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. 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?
“most readers would be mildly surprised if a newspaper leading article were written in the language of a navvy” – 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 operation will soon be able to directly compete with “broadcasters” in a way that has never previously been possible and those who have snuggled up to the state and bought their way into the popular consciousness will have to consider their positions anew. All of this will force public figures to step up their game in the future.
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.
Unless of course they’ve just not considered the issues?
 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.
 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.
 I’m a little out of my depth on US broadcast law but the abolition of the so-called Fairness Doctrine seems to have aided the ascent of political talk radio there and the agressive characters who man the microphones in that world are not unlike the old school pamphleteers. Freedom of speech is more passionately defended in America and the nation is all the better for it.
 I read an incredible article last year, written by a media professional, on an industry website as regards this. The answer to the rhetorical question seems to be, “yes, yes you are”: Leveson: Am I missing something?