The press has been known as the fourth estate, supposedly charged with holding truth to power, but which we now know is a delusion. However, there is a true fourth estate and that is fact-checkers.
The printing press opened up the ability of some to spread a narrative that ran counter to the propaganda of monarchs and governments. It was an opportunity to hold truth to power by publicising where governments had failed to fulfil their obligations and promises, or at least point out where they were failing to protect citizens.
Of course, the printing press let governments, and others who wanted to push their own agendas, spread their ideas far and wide – ideas that undermined the fulfilling of the needs of people, while promoting the desires of those who held power. We have seen this war of truth verses disinformation reach its culmination in the Murdoch media, where they knowingly spread outright lies to undermine democracy. This has shown that our trust in news media as the fourth estate is a delusion promoted by those holding wealth and power to obscure their malign influence upon our societies.
So instead of revealing abuses of power, major media outlets have been trying to distract from them or suppress knowledge of them. The rise of the Murdoch media juggernaut has had many major outlets trying to distance themselves from its web of lies by trying to position themselves as what the fourth estate is supposed to be, but they are betrayed by their lack of bringing their own owners into the same spotlight. They are largely compromised because they are owned by those wealthy people who are desperate to keep their wealth and privileged positions in society. The free press is a myth!
If the news media are not doing what many claim them to be there for, who is holding truth to power?
We have seen a rise in recent years of the numbers of organisations dedicated to fact-checking the utterances of politicians and media outlets. This is a good thing, but they are often so grossly underfunded that they are not really capable of challenging the onslaught of propaganda put out by mainstream media, let alone the myriad social media channels, fed by state-sponsored bots or influencers paid by shadowy political organisations, that are dedicated to hiding the truth and spreading lies and propaganda.
We cannot trust organisations run by wealthy people nor governments left to run themselves. Fact-checking takes time and huge resources to be able to unearth the many significant abuses of power, which means they need to be publicly-funded. That would need to be part of a significant overhaul of how bureaucracies are run so that they are truly independent of those in power and the government of the day.
Bureaucracies are a necessary part of government, and their independence is required to prevent abuses of power by elected officials. However, we have seen a growing subversion of that independence by those following an ideology that wants to preserve the wealth of a few by undermining all levels of democracy. Bureaucracies are overburdened and subject to too much political interference if too many positions are publicly elected.
It may appear contradictory, but too much democracy in bureaucratic appointments undermines public democracy. That is because elections sap a lot of their funding, but also opens them up to short-term considerations rather than the long-term stability of their society. A bureaucracy cannot function properly if it is subject to the whims of popular opinion.
Presuming an independent bureaucracy can be established, an independent fact-checking entity can be set up with clear guidelines to pursue the major subversions of truth that are undermining the ability of citizens to have more control over their own destinies. Part of that is anti-corruption agencies that investigate direct abuses of power by elected and appointed officials, but also arms that are dedicated to publicising the truth about current propaganda and disinformation so that the public is directly aware of them as they are occurring.
However, it is important that investigations are not only about individual failings but about systemic abuses that are perpetrated by cartels of shadowy business interests. With some enterprises having more value and economic reach than many nations, it is clear that just fact-checking government is not enough. It must also fact-check the vast output of business propaganda designed to maintain the wealth of their owners and senior executives.
Individual citizens do not have the resources to counter mass propaganda, but fact-checking organisations have to have the long-term and adequate funding that allows them to truly hold truth to power regardless of who holds that power.