What both cases point to, some would argue, is a shift in the very focus of democracy. In the good old days there were Three Estates that held dominion over us. The Lords Spiritual, the Lords Temporal and the Commons. As the Press rose and cast off the shackles of censorship it became routinely referred to, after a remark made by Edmund Burke in the late eighteenth century, as the Fourth Estate. Here is how Oscar Wilde saw things a hundred and twenty years ago:-
In 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.
I would urge you click the link above and read the rest of that magnificent essay, especially the continuation of Wilde’s thoughts about the press.
The Fifth Estate?
Well, then. All in the same week the Fourth Estate has been rescued by Twitter and shamed by Twitter. Has the twinternet now become the Fifth Estate? And if so is it safe in the hands of people like you and me? Especially me.
Without, I hope, too much self-pity, I do seem to have made myself a target. Journalists who don’t understand what Twitter really is (the overwhelming majority) will use my name as a kind of shorthand for the service. The fact that I have been on it for a whole year (ie a decade, see second paragraph above) and have in that time accumulated a fairly large number of followers allows them lazily to go straight to my “Twitter feed” (as they insist on calling it) and either crediting me with being a kind of a Citizen Smith of the Twitting Popular Front, or blaming me for hypocritically claiming to strike blows for press freedom with one hand while trying to censor journalism with the other.
And what am I after all? What right have I to wield this kind of influence? A question people have been asking about journalists for years, but which they have every right to ask about me too. I don’t know what business I have wielding influence either. This whole thing has just grown up around me and now I cannot help wondering if, despite my preference for turd-sucking over politics, I have found myself in a new Fifth Estate political assembly, willy-nilly hailed as some sort of tribune by friendly people on one side and being yelled at by unfriendly people on the other. I am not cut out for the hurly-burly of adversarial politics. I am not qualified to represent anyone nor, I cannot repeat often enough, do I wish to. So I should shut up. That seems to be the only sensible thing to do. I should shut the fuck up.
Twitter and Me
It all seems rather unfair, he wailed piteously. A pleasant twittery microblogging service that I joined in the spirit of curiosity and fun has emerged as a real force in the land and it is of course fascinating and pleasing to see this. I am, despite my prolix propensities and orotund enunciations, infantile. I like toys, I never plan ahead and I have little thought for consequences. I had no agenda with joining Twitter a year ago other than popping my toe in its water and seeing what the temperature was. It was not part of a clever commercial plan to “build my brand” (whatever the arse that means) nor to sell tickets, books and DVDs nor to ready myself for government, nor to disseminate a point of view nor to raise my profile in the media. I was travelling in Africa and other spots around the globe and I thought it would be an interesting way of sending little postcards to anyone who might be interested.