Robert Andrews posts a perceptive two-liner on his blog:
It occurred to me that, whilst The Fourth Estate performs an important function in democracy, questioning and keeping in check the political sphere, the news media are themselves now open to the same monitoring and questioning for the first time.
I can only assume Robert is talking about blogs. I like the notion of The Fourth Estate's Fourth Estate (Robert Andrews: Weblog) - an emergent independent governance system ensuring corporate responsibility from the media.
Finding ways to explain quite what corporate responsibility means for the media is often difficult: their environmental and social impacts are rarely direct. The primary challenge for the media is to ensure fair and transparent coverage.
Arguably, whether the traditional media like it or not, this 4th4th should be a reminder that the rules have changed - media companies need to have the systems in place to respond swiftly to concerns raised through the new media.
The positive response is to embrace this. For example, Le Monde in France have joined with SixApart to offer TypePad to Le Monde readers through a jointly branded project. It's not without risks - the potential for blogger making libellous assertions beneath a Le Monde banner, perhaps - but suggests a company looking to understand its readers concerns better.
I wrote recently about the Big splash vs small waves in which I proposed that companies seeking to communicate with stakeholders should rely less on one big corporate responsibility report each year and more on smaller, more frequent conversations. I also argued that companies need to monitor the blogosphere to listen for concerns and issues that matter to stakeholders.
The BBC's iCan project is another example of how a media company is addressing this. In September 2000 in the UK, protesters came close to bringing the country and its government to its knees over the price of petrol/gas. The BBC acknowledged that they were wrong-footed by the mass of protests which seemed to emerge from nowhere.
iCan, in which ordinary people are encouraged to participate in civil society, organise, protest etc has not only been put forward as a means for the BBC to demonstrate its commitment to public service during the Charter Renewal process, but also as a way that the broadcaster can tap into ordinary concerns, much like an early warning system. It is, I would say, monitoring the small waves.
So, the Fourth Estate's Fourth Estate? The idea is useful in demonstrating why the media needs to listen more and differently. My only concern is that it also sounds like a great strapline for a reactionary blog: the blogosphere has no official responsibilities and it certainly shouldn't assume any - after all, it has very little, if any, accountability.
Perhaps the Fourth Estate's Fourth Estate needs its own Fourth Estate...