The Fourth Estate needs a makeover – what would Borgen do?

Who said: “In the old days men had the rack. Now they have the Press. That is an improvement certainly. But still it is very bad, and wrong, and demoralizing. Somebody — was it Burke? — called journalism the fourth estate. That was true at the time no doubt. But at the present moment it is the only estate. It has eaten up the other three. The Lords Temporal say nothing, the Lords Spiritual have nothing to say, and the House of Commons has nothing to say and says it. We are dominated by Journalism”.

No, not Hugh Grant. Oscar Wilde actually. In 1891. His views on Free-For-All-Banking or Free-For-All-Corporate-Tax-Dodging remain unknown, but we can probably have a pretty good stab. And while we’re groping about in the wise quotes box, why not add Einstein’s “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

So how long will it be before we stop treating establishment institutions the same way and expect a different result? We wimped out on the banks when they threatened to up sticks and take “God’s work” elsewhere. Hot on the heels of the banksters Amazon, Google, Starbucks et al protest that they’re totally legal and therefore untouchable.

But back to Oscar – paraphrasing this time – To lose one establishment fight may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness … to lose three is just gross incompetence, something which the coalition government can hardly afford much more of.

It is therefore of the utmost importance that the future management of the Fourth Estate is handled elegantly and with total integrity. No more pandering to press barons, lobbyists, journalists or other undesirable elements – at least ‘undesirable’ within a legislative environment.


Well, Britain says a number of different things actually: In Scotland Alex Salmond seems to support a statutory system based on that used in Ireland, complete with Press Ombudsman. David Cameron is engaged in his customary bout of pre-decision-hand-wringing and “remains open-minded”. The Cleggmeister, however, is unambiguously playing hardball, he wants statutory regulation.


Borgen actually crossed this Rubicon way back in 1991 when the Danish Press Council was formed to oversee all matters journalistic, in newspapers as well as in broadcasting. Increasingly, it is also covering online media. The Danish model of ‘co-regulation’ has been described by the BBC’s Nick Higham as “many British newspapers’ worst nightmare“.

The Danish press, however, seems perfectly happy with that system of regulation. They feel it adds to their credibility. In a recent BBC interview, Bo Lidegaard, editor-in-chief of one of Denmark’s leading newspapers, Politiken, agrees, “it is a council supported by the press itself, and it operates under rules that we collectively have established and we, the press, are basically the guardians of the system.”

Not many people would argue that Denmark would appear to be a fully functioning democracy which values press freedom highly. The system of press regulation they have operated successfully for 20-odd years is one where complaints from readers are handled by a press council set up by Act of Parliament, whose members are government-appointed, and which has the power to demand that erring titles be fined.

The press like it, the people like it and – wait for it – the parliamentarians have just recommended that the legislation be tightened even further.

Watch this space!

* Kirsten de Keyser sits on the Camden Liberal Democrat Executive and is a member of Social Liberal Forum and Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine. She blogs here.

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  • I don’t see that press freedom is inconsistent with responsibility and accountability for press organs, commensurate with their power.

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