It was 18th-century parliamentarian Edmund Burke who was said to have coined the term “fourth estate”.
Describing the first estate as the Lords Temporal, the second as the Lords Spiritual and the third as members of the House of Commons, he pointed across at the parliamentary press gallery and is said to have commented: ‘Yonder sits the fourth estate, and they are more important than them all.”
But away from the hurly burly of Westminster politics, it is in council debating chambers where the British press today plays arguably its most essential role as one of the pillars of civic society.
It is a pillar which is in danger of crumbling due to tightening resources. From parish-hall debates on how to control the problems of dog mess on playing fields (which can be, as we know, a major health risk) to city council arguments about major multibillion-pound developments – journalists, predominately from the printed press, are the public’s eyes and ears. They are the only way for the public – beyond the few enthusiasts who attend meetings – to engage in the democratic debate.
Many journalists will remember attending these meetings in the early days of their career and being somewhat awed by the realisation that their shorthand scribblings were the only way that their community could know what a multimillion-pound local authority was up to with their money.
Local government reporting is among the most worthwhile work that any journalist will do in their career. And it will be a shame for journalism, but a much greater shame for society as a whole, if detailed and conscientious reporting of local government is allowed to perish.