The continuing story

Modern ideas of journalism and the Fourth Estate have both a prehistory and an uncertain future. Among the academics at Bristol who study the media in various contexts are three who, taken together, cover the modern press from its medieval antecedents to its current crises.

Ruling the waves

Dr Simon Potter in the Department of Historical Studies has studied the history of the British press and British broadcasting, both of which are bound up with the rise and fall of the British Empire. His most recent book, Broadcasting Empire: The BBC and the British World, 1922-1970, is based on eight years of archival research and draws on collections in Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the USA. Before that, he examined the preceding era in News and the British World: The Emergence of an Imperial Press System, 1876-1922.

'Right from its foundation, the BBC was actively trying to promote the unity of the British Empire in the face of foreign rivals and internal dissent,' says Potter. 'Radio was seen as a technology that could link Britons at home with "overseas Britons" in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.'

The BBC’s Empire Service – the forerunner of the World Service – was founded in 1932, and broadcast the first Royal Christmas message (written by Rudyard Kipling and read by King George V) the same year. From the 1930s onwards, the World Service broadcast British music, drama, sport and comedy to promote British cultural connections with the dominions. Potter describes the BBC’s role on behalf of the state as that of 'a sub-contractor for cultural diplomacy'; and it's a role that has continued up to the present, although the government is due to withdraw funding for the World Service this year.

Bulls, bishops and Benedict

Centuries earlier, medieval Europe recognised only three estates: clergy, nobility, and commoners. Reputations were made and broken, and master narratives woven, through the mass media of the Middle Ages, which was delivered mostly via the pulpit and the painted image.

'Sermons were the mass medium par excellence for many centuries,' says George Ferzoco, Research Fellow in the Department of Religion and Theology. 'That was the only time when everyone in a community would be gathered in one spot to hear what someone in authority had to say about something.'

Bishops and priests would often draw upon documents sent by the papacy for the content of their sermons. Bulls of canonization, for example, provided material for preaching on relevant feast days for new saints. Ferzoco has made a particular study of Celestine V, the only pope until Benedict XVI to resign voluntarily (in 1294), and the way his 'official portrait' was constructed through these bulls, and various hagiographical works and testimonies, as part of the process of making him a saint.

'He spent most of his life as an almost superhumanly austere hermit who would go for weeks on bread and water and would genuflect 500 times a day,' says Ferzoco. 'But that stuff doesn’t make it into the official portrait. They created an image of him that was more mainstream – a nice, pious guy who quit for all the right reasons and deserved to be made a saint.'

Ferzoco’s research into the workings of the 13th-century media led to a flood of requests from the 21st-century media for his comments after Benedict XVI resigned – ironically assigning Ferzoco himself a small role in the formation of Benedict’s public image.

'The media has always relied on people perceived as authoritative,' he says. 'In the Middle Ages, it was individuals of elevated or "holy" status, because they were considered infallible. Today, authority arises out of a combination of speed, verifiability and quotability.'

Data drive

In the accelerated world of the modern media, traditional journalism must compete with the online communities of bloggers, hacktivists and other networked individuals that, inevitably, have been called the Fifth Estate.

Nello Cristianini, Professor of Artificial Intelligence in the Faculty of Engineering, studies the creation and consumption of online news and other media using the only tools that can handle such a vast output: algorithms and pattern recognition.

'Social scientists have been doing content analysis for decades – "coding" every article in a newspaper by hand – but one person can only manage a few hundred articles,' says Cristianini. 'We teamed up with colleagues at Cardiff University to see whether that coding could be automated.'

And it could, thanks to the digitisation of the news media. What once required highlighter pens and many hours of human concentration can now be accomplished on a vast scale through artificial intelligence and data mining. 'We're monitoring 1,100 newspapers, and we've developed a process that can machine-translate 22 languages into English,' says Cristianini. 'That enables us to study macroscopic patterns in the world's media.'

Projects conducted so far include comparisons of the news agenda across the European Union, a study of gender bias and readability in news articles, and an enquiry into what makes online readers favour certain stories. By and large, the findings are what one would expect (news articles tend to be male-biased, though less so if the topic is fashion or entertainment; public affairs articles are less readable, and less popular, than entertainment articles), but the work demonstrates the potential of Big Data to detect patterns and relationships in the world’s media – not just via news outlets but on Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms.

As more and more historical material is digitised, the potential of large-scale, automated analysis as a method of study in the arts and social sciences is becoming evident. Meanwhile, Cristianini has recently been awarded an EU Fellowship for a major study of Big Data, data mining and pattern recognition, and its ethical and practical dimensions.

Press on

Historians of the Western media have tended to describe its evolution through the 18th and 19th centuries towards a kind of late-20th-century culmination, with professional journalists and powerful editors working for national newspapers and international corporations. But, says Potter, 'That's starting to look like just one phase in a continuing process. Big institutions are starting to have serious funding problems, the BBC is under attack from all quarters including the government, and new media are challenging them.'

How things will play out in the future remains uncertain. Potter suggests two possibilities: 'a diverse media ecology, with big organisations like the BBC and The Guardian, living side by side with the Huffington Post and other online journalism outlets and blogs,' or the disintegration of corporate news media, 'leaving a sea of unprocessed, pick-your-own, online journalism'.

If this leaves the notion of the Fourth Estate looking somewhat imperilled, Potter argues that it’s often been a vague and self-serving concept anyway. 'In the late 19th century, WT Stead and other pioneering journalists built up the idea that the press is there to focus public opinion and keep parliament in line,' he says. 'In the aftermath of the Leveson Inquiry, many people are wondering whether the press has ceased to fulfil this function and succumbed to a lust for sensation. But a lot of newspaper editorials used Fourth Estate rhetoric in their responses to Leveson, declaring "You can’t regulate us, because our independence from government authority is absolutely crucial to modern democracy".'

Can the press still make such a claim, with the unruly Fifth Estate challenging its supremacy? The debate continues, but studying the history and development of the media – from medieval sermons, to BBC broadcasts, to trending topics on Twitter – makes a crucial contribution to our understanding of politics and society in the modern world.

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