Cast your mind back to 2011 and think about which news stories dominated the headlines that year. The phone hacking scandal should be one of the things that pop into your head. The intense and rigorous scrutiny of the media that was prompted by the scandal was momentary and the dust settled fairly quickly. The Fourth Estate, a new no-holds-barred documentary directed by Lee Salter, examines the people and practises of the media industries and shows us how, post-Leveson, its flaws and inadequacies are not as few and far between as is let on.
The documentary is split into nine sections, starting appropriately with ‘Business’, that includes a definition of the term ‘political economy’. This approach works very well as it allows the viewers to draw their own connections and link ideas together as the documentary progresses. Though the approach may seem ‘scattergun-like’ to some, it actually makes for a reasonably coherent film. There is a lot of ground covered in the space of 90 minutes, with topics ranging from the history and business of the press, politics, representation and of course, journalists.
Contributors include Goldsmith University Professor Dr. Natalie Fenton, author and writer Laurie Penny, Chair of the Media Reform Coalition Des Freedman, Goldsmiths University Professor James Curran and The Guardian’s Joseph Harker.
In addition to exploring the media business as a whole, and those who run it, the film also offers an insight into the challenges that many journalists (new or otherwise) may face at work particularly at the hands of their editors. Former Daily Star reporter Richard Peppiatt recalls his experience working at the tabloid paper as one where he felt uncomfortable with some of the things he was asked to do, and the way he was asked to cover certain stories. He particularly took issue with the paper’s coverage of Islam.
The way minority groups are portrayed in the media has a huge impact on the way society views them and the film deals this topic in a frank and thoughtful way. A sizeable portion of it is devoted to issues of gender, race and class representation and it is good to see the subject of transgender representation mentioned, however brief (considering that there simply isn’t enough time to discuss everything in detail). One of the film’s pleasant surprises is a spoken word piece called ‘Cog’ from the lovely poet and actor Deanna Rodger. It is very effective, although it goes on for a little while.
The documentary does a fantastic job showing how problematic the UK’s media business is and insists that it needs to take a good look at itself and do a lot better. The influence of the media means that it affects the way we experience the world, and the documentary highlights the link between political power, financial power and representation.
It also makes it clear that although all these problems and issues exist, there is still hope for the press to become truly independent and critical outlets for the public (rather than acting as propaganda tools with often little regard to public interest) and the media business to operate with a lot more integrity and dignity than it currently does. It’s an important watch for media and journalism students especially. The main message I took away from the documentary is that, as shitty and corrupt as the media industry can be, change is possible and the next generation of editors, reporters and journalists can be a part of it.
For more information about the documentary, check out the Fourth Estate website and follow its social media profiles for updates on further screenings.