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Mac the Knife
10th Oct 2001, 00:30
I know that this is bloody unfair to good journos everywhere but this extract from Micholas Monsarrat's old book "The Tribe that lost its Head" is too good to keep.

"Tulbach Browne of the Daily Thresh - seasoned traveller of a thousand flights, some epoch-making, very few entirely wasted - went through his usual short-flight, take-off routine. He pressed his ear-drums, and swallowed until his throat was comfortable; popped two dramamine tablets in his mouth, and washed them down with a swig from a tiny, palm-sized flask of whisky; exchanged his scuffed shoes for worn carpet slippers with his monogram upon the toecaps; unbuckled his belt; and patted his bulging breast pocket, which held passport, money, tickets, press card, and notebook, all clipped into one untidy bundle.

Lastly, he looked at his watch, to check the take-off time. If this were early, HAPHAZARD TIMING OF LOCAL AIRLINE would be the phrase; if late, PILOT’S TAKE-IT-OR-LEAVE-IT ATTITUDE might suffice. Once, when exact adherent to the timetable had made Tulbach Browne miss his plane, it had been CIVIL SERVICE MENTALITY MAKES BOAC LAUGHING STOCK. His world had ammunition to suit every mood.

On this occasion, the plane was eleven minutes behind schedule. WINDHOEK AIR SCANDAL seemed indicated. Or even TULBACH BROWNE IN NEVER-NEVER LAND - THE FACTS. For just now, his mood was one of irritation.

Tulbach Browne of the Daily Threshwas a small wizened man with sandy hair and a look of permanent disdain. No physical distinction marked him out from the next hundred men to be passed in the street: his face was ordinary, rather ugly, his body spare and average, his manner unimpressive. He had known all these things for a very long time: since the age of twenty-two, in fact, when a girl he was busy mauling in a taxi suddenly snapped: ‘If I have to be pawed like this, I’d rather it was done by someone attractive.’ He had never forgotten that moment: but, in fact, it had served him well.

For now, a quarter of a century later, he was forty-seven - and he had got back at that girl,and at everyone else who had ever overlooked or snubbed him:an impressive total of human beings. As Tulbach Browne of the Daily Thresh he was a ‘by-line’ correspondent most of the way round the world . As Tulbach Browne, he had made a global reputation, and made it in three ways: first by following Northcliffe’s advice and giving himself a ‘memorable’ name: secondly, by learning every detail of his trade; and last and most important, by supplying, copiously, the sort of comment that the Daily Thresh lived on.

There had been other things - plenty of luck, and one spectacular piece of bad faith, were among them - but basically, consistent ill nature had been the touchstone.

Competition on the Daily Thresh, in this respect, was very high: the paper had at least two staff writers, one of them a woman, who in normal circumstances would have carried off any palm. But Tulbach Browne was in a class by himself. No one could so adroitly ‘interpret’ the news, no one else could touch him at invective, innuendo, spite, and making plain truth into cloudy lies. Above all, no one could so triumphantly have it both ways at once.

If a politician talked pleasantly, he was ingratiating. If he tried to preserve a serious manner, he was pompous or sulky. A popular author had mere mob-appeal, a ‘literary’ one was unreadable. A rich man was ostentatious, a poor one seedy; a woman of any elegance at all became ‘minkdraped’, ‘dripping with diamonds’, a ‘hot-house product’ As with people, so with affairs. A well-organized event was ‘slick presentation’ - but there was very little that earned even this qualified praise. With few exceptions, Tulbach Browne reported disaster, inefficiency, bad faith. His verdict on the Everest triumph was ‘a Boy’s Own Paper exploit’. His record of the Royal Tour of Canada had been a positive cataract of mistakes and embarrassments which had given universal offence from coast to coast - and a matchless boost to the Daily Thresh.

The Daily Thresh knew exactly what people liked to read. They preferred things going wrong......."

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The term fourth estate is frequently attributed to the nineteenth century historian Carlyle, though he himself seems to have attributed it to Edmund Burke:

"Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters' Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important than they all. It is not a figure of speech, or a witty saying; it is a literal fact, .... Printing, which comes necessarily out of Writing, I say often, is equivalent to Democracy: invent Writing, Democracy is inevitable. ..... Whoever can speak, speaking now to the whole nation, becomes a power, a branch of government, with inalienable weight in law-making, in all acts of authority. It matters not what rank he has, what revenues or garnitures: the requisite thing is that he have a tongue which others will listen to; this and nothing more is requisite." Carlyle (1905) pp.349-350

The term 'fourth estate' is used today to refer to the mass media as a powerful watchdog in liberal democracy, revealing abuses of state authority and defending the democratic rights of citizens.