There are various terms used below: fourth estate, public sphere, superinjunction, statutory regulation, concentration of ownership, liberal pluralism, Marxist critique: (Chomsky's) propaganda model, hegemonic, free market, web 2.0.
The media are regulated because (a) they are seen as having profound influence on social psychology, values and attitudes and (b) because they are seen as a basic, fundamental part of a functioning democracy. Of course, the democratic function leads some to argue that we shouldn't regulate the media - or, more specifically, that the government shouldn't have a role in this; this is a key argument used against tougher, statutory regulation of the press.
June 2014 sees news emerging of a criminal trial which the media were originally banned from reporting on, including on its very existence. The very concept of a fourth estate (or free press, where press doesn't just mean newspapers) is based on the idea that the media will hold governments and big business to account, and expose any corruption, improper or antidemocratic practices.
This case is unusual in seeing several newspapers, such as the Times and Guardian, team up with other media organisations to legally challenge the ban on reporting the case, which they argue is profoundly undemocratic and goes against the principle of a fourth estate keeping the public informed of any dangers to their rights:
The Guardian and other media organisations made a last-ditch challenge to the secrecy surrounding the terror trial at the court of appeal. Anthony Hudson, representing the media, said the decision to withhold the identities of the men and carry out the entire proceedings in private was a legal departure.National security and WoT (the 'war on terror') have been used to justify the seemingly illegal mass invasion of privacy by the US and UK governments, as revealed by the whistleblower Edward Snowden (look out for the upcoming Oliver Stone movie on his story!).
The court was told that the crown has sought and obtained legal orders on the grounds of national security, arguing that if the trial were held in public the prosecution might not proceed with the case.
Although different reasons were presented as justification, this secret trial is comparable to the scandal of superinjunctions which also signalled legal limits to the fourth estate (media) which override any of the media regulators policies. The media were not only banned from reporting on legal cases such as Ryan Giggs' injunction against any media mention of his affair with his sister-in-law, they weren't even allowed to state anywhere that there had any legal action taken by Ryan Giggs (thus superinjunction).
Not all media academics accept that the media does fulfil this key democratic function of neutral watchdog. The 'common-sense', hegemonic idea that they do is part of a liberal, pluralist model, which sees the media industry as presenting a range of views and ideas thanks to the competition that free market conditions bring. The opposite opinion is most commonly represnted by the Marxist Noam Chomsky's propaganda model - he sees the mass media as fulfilling precisely the opposite role: they act as a guard against information which might damage the hegemonic system and elites in place at any given time, and as international conglomerates owned by millionaires and billionaires, with a strategic interest in low tax and minimal worker rights, are simply part of the big business they are supposed to scrutinise.
By coincidence, on the same day as this secret trial story comes out, Roy Greenslade also reports on a potential new law which will give the government the right to force media companies to remove references to any subject or person involved in a court trial, yet another indication of how loose the concept of 'free press' is, and how wider laws so often have more impact than the formal regulators:
Publishers fear that a government measure to prevent jurors from seeking online material related to trials could pose a threat to press freedom.
According to The Times's legal editor, Frances Gibb, the problem has emerged in a little noticed clause in the criminal justice and courts bill now going through its parliamentary stages.
The bill creates a new criminal offence for jurors, punishable with up to two years' jail, should they conduct research prohibited by a judge.
But the measure also gives the attorney-general the power to require publishers to take down material from their website archives. Publishers would be issued with a notice ordering them to remove material that is deemed by a judge to prejudice criminal proceedings
If they fail to do so they would face prosecution for contempt of court.
If you want to read more on the concept of the fourth estate, and (counter-)critques of it, try some of the following:
Yes, there's a Wiki...
The Fourth Estate (or fourth estate) is a societal or political force or institution whose influence is not consistently or officially recognized. "Fourth Estate" most commonly refers to the news media; especially print journalism or "the press". Thomas Carlyle attributed the origin of the term to Edmund Burke, who used it in a parliamentary debate in 1787 on the opening up of press reporting of the House of Commons of Great Britain.
Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, writing at the time that Murdoch's attempted (complete) takeover of BSkyB threatened further the principle of pluralism of ownership and voice/views, argues that web 2.0 is splintering the fourth estate:
It's always been a given that the business we journalists are in is not quite like other businesses. What it does matters too much. That's why it has sometimes rather grandly been called the fourth estate – a part of society as important as government, the courts or the church. Some would say more so.
Virtually every adult over the age of 30 grew up with the idea that the fourth estate consisted of just two parts – press and broadcasting. Each was owned, financed and regulated in different ways and each gave rise to different ideas of what journalism was.
But now there's a new kid on the block. A third wing to the fourth estate, if that's not too mixed a metaphor. You could even argue there are two new kids on the block – the original world wide web (essentially another form of transmission) and web 2.0, the advent and rapid maturing of so-called social, or open, media. No one owns the digital space and it is barely regulated. It brings with it an entirely new idea of what journalism is – indeed, for some, it calls into question whether there is any such distinct thing as "journalism", a theme I tried to tackle in my Cudlipp lecture in January this year.
This double revolution within just over 20 years is having a dramatic effect on the accepted norms and categorisations of information. We are seeing the splintering of the fourth estate.
German commentator Jurgen Kronig, comparing British, German and US media/democracy, also noted issues around concentration of ownership and dumbing down for commercial gain. He argued, back in 2004, that the PSBs were also guilty of this, leading to less and less rational coverage of politics. A great summary of the dumbing down or tabloidisation arguments, and of the impact of deregulation, especially permitting concentration of ownership:
To avoid any misunderstanding: a natural tension between politics and the media has always existed and that is right and necessary. Without a free press there is no public sphere, no informed citizen and thus no democracy.
The fourth estate, however, is more powerful than ever. It is shaped by two dominating principles - sensationalism and simplification, which the American sociologist Robert McChesney, in his book Rich Media, Poor Democracy, defines as the consequence of "hyper commercialisation". It has led to ever fiercer ratings and circulation wars, which inevitably leads to what is called "dumbing down". To succeed, the media industry tries to appeal to the lower instincts of people.
Of course it is one thing to pander to lower instincts. But they have to be there in the first place, and so has the willingness to be pandered to. In the end, people have a choice. One has to face an unpalatable reality: a Rupert Murdoch or Silvio Berlusconi, whose media outlets are giving the people what they want - fun, games and entertainment - is more "democratic" than the cultural elites, who tried imposing their values and standards on the masses.
Mullen and Klaehn (2010) look in detail at Chomsky's propaganda model, in this accessible article from a Sociology journal:
The liberal-pluralist view of how political systems operate within capitalist, liberal-democratic societies suggests that there exists a healthy ‘marketplace of ideas’ (Ginsberg 1986). In other words, there exist different opinions, policy proposals, worldviews, etc., that translate in turn into choices for the general publics. ... Put simply, it is claimed that the media serve as guardians of the public interest and as ‘watchdogs’ on the exercise of power; the media thereby contribute significantly to a system of checks and balances that comprise the modern democratic system.
In recent years increasing attention has been paid by media theorists to the notion of the public sphere as developed by German philosopher Jürgen Habermas. Habermas, implacable opponent of postmodernist theorizing, argues that in eighteenth century England there was the emergence of a 'public sphere ... which mediates between society and state', in which 'the public organises itself as the bearer of public opinion' (Habermas (1989)).