Estates of the realm and journalistic integrity

History teaches us about the division of the French society into the three estates of the realm. More recent realities have suggested modifications in this trinity and even extensions to it.

Up until the French Revolution, that society was divided into three estates. The first estate was made up of the clergy. Of course, even within that group, there was the higher and lower clergy. One’s family tree determined where one could reach, with the higher echelons remaining available only to those who sprang from the second estate.

The second estate was the nobility. There were a few strata of nobility, but those who attained this status through military service were among the oldest and most secure among this class.

In addition to the nobles of the sword, there were those who held high civic office. In the days of kings, these often owed their status to the good graces of the monarch. Among these were the nobility by letters, that is, those on whom the king bestowed nobility by letters patent. All this took was a letter from the king to make one a noble. Local “kings” are still bestowing nobility by letters, it seems.

Everyone else fell into the third estate. Whether you were a wage earner or a rural peasant with your own land, you formed part of the third estate with little hope of rising above that status. The French Revolution was intended to strike down this system, but alas, notwithstanding the appearance of something different, the class divide continues.

Our colonial heritage is English, hence, other than those who studied history at a higher level or educated themselves about this western-world phenomenon, the French social structure would mean little or nothing to us. It was a deliberate policy to “educate” us only in what was necessary to promote the interest of our colonial power.

The English class system was not as concretely cast as the French, so it was easier to transcend classes. However, a look at the English parliamentary system reflects the classic estate system. Like in France, the monarchy sat above the estates or class divisions. Below the royalty, the parliament was composed of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons.

As recently as 1999, Britain passed the House of Lords Act. Yet, the British Parliament still recognises the existence of the three estates: the Commons in the House of Commons, the nobility in the House of Lords, and the clergy in the form of the Church of England bishops also entitled to sit in the upper House as the Lords Spiritual.
It is not difficult to see this reflected in our own parliamentary structure, even after fifty years of independence. Maybe, we do not think that this can be improved upon.

In modern times, the media, principally the press, has emerged as the fourth estate. This is not a formally recognised or established state organ or structure, but it has earned its place by its important role in communicating across all classes.

The media communicates more than information. Probably, more important than anything else, the communication of societal values makes the media indispensable to the kind of society we have at any particular time. It becomes exceedingly dangerous, therefore, when the media goes beyond communicating genuine information, which we label as news, and start to make the news.

The responsibility not to manufacture news extends to verifying the information passed to the media for communication, especially when the source of such information may likely have a particular bias. The publisher cannot deny responsibility for what is published, regardless of whom they are operating in aid of.

The defamation laws have been developed to protect the reputation of persons in the society. These are more often than not invoked against media houses because information spread by the media can do more damage than traditional rumour mongering. One of the most unfortunate developments in recent times is the willingness of too many people to believe something because it appeared in print.

However, there must always be balance. A person with no reputation does not have a reputation to protect. Consequently, if what is produced as news is unflattering, but true, no action can be successfully brought against the publisher of such information, malice aside.

There has been a raging debate over whether or not the Leader of the Opposition is properly qualified to practice law in Barbados. A section of the press produced a story which addressed this debate. The Opposition Leader reportedly took issue with the story and filed a law suit alleging defamation. For the purposes of this discussion, the merits of that action is immaterial.

One press house which is thought to be closely associated with the Opposition party, published a report stating that the Opposition Leader had won her case and damages had been agreed. Legal luminaries were surprised by this development because it did not seem to be consistent with the general understanding of what is provided for in our Defamation Act or the surrounding body of learning associated with this area of the law. One wondered whether there was some feature of her claim that was not known to the public that would eventually be disclosed, as it was thought that there was no basis on which a defamation claim could be established on the known facts.

And then it was further reported that an attorney claiming to be associated with the action declared that the Opposition Leader withdrew her case and it never engaged the attorneys in argument. Put differently, the case was never decided by the court.

The troubling question is, if the latter information is correct, what could motivate a publishing house to produce a story that bore no resemblance to the truth? It is the right of any person, whether literal or corporate, to support the political party of their choice, but this does not interfere with a media house’s responsibility to be truthful.

It may be that the author of the misleading story was not deliberately lying, but the obligation to investigate information before publication is not only sensible, but necessary. Clearly, the journalist was not in the court at the time that the matter came on for hearing. It can only be assumed, therefore, that someone who was, or who the author chose to believe, gave the author the misleading information that ended up in the public domain.

We now know that the misrepresentative information did not come from the legal counsel for the Respondent, Barbados Today. But in our world where some people glory in being unscrupulous and dishonest, is it reasonable for a journalist or media house to publish information from a source with a bias in a matter?

In 2017 when the fourth estate has superseded the other three in importance, journalistic integrity is an absolute necessity. Where this is lacking, the society which suffers at their hands is doomed.

Barbados Advocate

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