Celebrity is now so tightly bound up with the Fourth Estate (the media) they are one. Or so it seems. Recently, Australia had a visitation from the American “queen of television” Oprah Winfrey and politicians were more than willing to be seen supporting her, smiling for her success and waving to her fans. Her visit has been described as unique, and indeed that is how it played itself out.
But at the same time we have an arguably famous Australian ferociously representing the Fourth Estate, Julian Assange, who is fighting for his freedom, justice and his pursuit of our right to know yet who has been all but neglected by politicians who would not want to share a stage, let alone a news story with him. His growing international group of supporters are also of no interest to them.
But it all began exactly, 112 years ago when a French journalist brought injustice and wrongdoings at the highest level to the international headlines. His name was Emile Zola and his front page open letter to the French President was headlined “J’Accuse!” (I Accuse). He incurred the wrath of the powerful.
Celebrity firmly to one side - examinations of the Fourth Estate in Western newspaper history reveal a lamentable deficit of instances where politicians have been inclined to show any support for the media when it has taken an adversarial role in holding to account the other three estates of Western society - the judiciary, the parliament and the executive.
One rare instance where a politician did pay heed and responded favourably to the work of the Fourth Estate was when Keith Murdoch (Rupert Murdoch’s father) wrote a letter on the appalling loss of young Australian life at Gallipoli in 1915. When the then Australian Prime Minister, Andrew Fisher, had read his letter he ended the disastrous Dardanelles campaign.
There has been no such response to the work of Julian Assange. Politicians and the powerful are disturbed, affronted and incensed by the brave actions of Julian Assange and Wikileaks to keep the public sphere informed.
And while breathless members of the media are convinced of the unprecedented example of Wikileaks (no doubt augmented by the instantaneous power of the Internet), this challenge to governments and institutions is not unique. Yes, Oprah’s taping of her shows in Sydney was unique; but, thankfully, brave assertions of the Fourth Estate holding politicians to account are not.
As a scholar of media history, I’m struck by both the short-term memories of our media but also the striking similarities between the impact, circumstances and ramifications of Wikileaks and an equally earthshaking newspaper letter published in a Paris newspaper in 1898 - Emile Zola’s front page letter headlined “J’Accuse!”
“J’Accuse” did not divulge state secrets nor violate diplomatic exchanges: it did more than that, it benchmarked the watchdog role of the Fourth Estate. Newspapers and their journalists have struggled to rise to the occasion ever since.
At its time it was also an outstanding exception to the growing and stifling commercialism and emphasis on advertising within the newspaper industry in France. Similarities and concerns with contemporary media are obvious.
“J’Accuse!” was bold, audacious and motivated by a passion for justice. It brought a case of gross injustice of trumped up charges based purely on anti-Semitism in the French military to the French public’s attention. It was a case the military had tried to conceal from the scrutiny of the French press. Revealing concealment is where the Fourth Estate is at its best.
What resulted was an enormous cleavage in French society and its potency was such the scandal was pushed onto the international stage.
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