The Tennis Court Oath, Versailles, 1789
In the traditional model of rule, dating back to feudalism, there were three powers in the realm. These were called the “Estates General” in pre-revolutionary France.
The first, and foremost was the Lords Temporal, made up of the hereditary royalty of the realm. In effect these were the main landowners.
The second estate was the Lords Spiritual, the Cardinals and Bishops who ruled the church and wielded the power of “God” on earth.
The third, most numerous, and also the weakest estate was traditionally made up of commoners. This is not to say they were poor peasants. In fact the “Commons” were merchant princes, bankers, lawyers and aldermen selected to represent the interests of the middle classes.
Three great events in the 17th and 18th Centuries changed the dynamics of the Estates General forever.
- In 1649 the British Parliament ordered the execution of King Charles, shattering the concept of “Divine Right” to rule.
- In 1776 13 colonies of the United States of America declared their right of self-determination, a right of the 3rd estate to be free of the rule of the 1st estate. No taxation without representation!
- In 1789 the French 3rd estate seized power from the 1st and 2nd estates and firmly issued in the age of enlightenment.
Never again were the 1st and 2nd estates to hold power in the Western world without the agreement of the 3rd estate.
In the midst of this redefinition of the balance of power Edmund Burke, an Irish peer, made an address to Westminster on the reporting of parliamentary business by the Press. He pointed out that the Press represented a 4th Estate which potentially wielded more power than the 3 estates general. It proved to be a prophetic prediction.
Today almost every coup d’état begins with the seizure of the organs of the media, the presses, the radio stations and the TV stations. Politicians and their military arms know that the media battle is as important as any conflict of arms. Tight autocratic rule is only possible where the rulers control the media, the 4th estate.
The concept of a 5th estate, non mainstream media, emerged in the counter cultural revolution of the 1960’s, originally as the eponymous Detroit Newspaper. It spread to a variety of media, but was restricted by traditional constraints on output. The odd piece of output made a splash, such as the “Anarchists Cookbook”, but most of the small publications and independent radio broadcasts were lost to tiny circulations.
Then the internet arrived. The 5th estate has blossomed on media such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and in the darkest corners of the deep web.
Despite the best efforts of autocratic regimes it is very difficult to control the 5th Estate. China is the best example of a state that exerts tight control. Even the great firewall of China is porous. The regime cannot control all the information that filters in and out of the nation. People import smartphones from abroad, or use various tricks to bypass state control of the firewalls.
The “Arab Spring” revolutions in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and the Middle East were made possible by the 5th Estate. Rebels were able to use social media to tear apart the propaganda and lies of the ruling elite. They then used social media to coordinate and organize protests, uprisings and even battles.
Mainstream journalists use and abuse social media to bypass super injunctions by courts to control celebrity scandals. They breach the laws of sub judice reporting in a manner that is impossible in the 4th estate. Whistleblowers use social media to release data into the public domain including Julian Assange, Linda Tripp, Edward Snowdon, Bradley Manning etc.
The impact of the 5th Estate on Western Democratic politics is only now beginning to crystalize.
The rules are being formed but we get an emerging sense of the landscape.
Cover-ups don’t work.
Fraud is uncovered.
Nepotism is exposed.
Secret donations do not remain secret.
Past statements of politicians are dredged up and used as a stick to beat them.
The age of the media savvy politician and his spin-doctor sidekick is over.
We are entering a new era of politics, where consistency, honesty and openness are the sine qua non of political survival.
Large central parties are fracturing and falling apart as their corrupt members are isolated and exposed.
For the individual politician loyalty to the constituency is more important than loyalty to the party.
We see this in the rise of the independents, the mavericks, those outside mainstream politics. The Trump factor.
The new era will favour smaller groupings with tighter internal agreement on issues and higher levels of trust between members. “Family” style groupings who share values.
Governments will be by coalitions of these small groups.
The practice of governing will become more fluid as alliances are made, broken and reformed based on prevailing economic and political priorities.
The 4th estate has been increasingly controlled by the wealthy, who can afford to buy the media, and establish editorial standards. Would the Watergate Scandal see the light of day in the current media climate?
By contrast the 5th estate is uncontrollable. It can be influenced by those with the largest social media followings.
In the next 20 years you will see attempts by the wealthy to influence the 5th estate by buying influence. Anyone who is seen as “bought” will rapidly lose traction.
King Canute (or Cnut) is famous for trying to hold back the tide.
In fact he was criticizing sycophantic nobles who accorded him divine powers.
He demonstrated that for all his power he was unable to order the tides.
Canute would understand just how uncontrollable is the 5th Estate.
Canute holds back the tide