‘What is the role of the media in a representative democracy? How well do the Australian media perform this role?’
The role of the media and how well it is performed will be discovered throughout this essay. Further enquiry will be made into the unique relationship between the government, media and the public and what ramifications that has for a representative democracy. Scholarly concepts of the media will be defined and discussed in some detail. The legislation that enables the media to perform its role in society will also be explored. Finally conclusions will be drawn as to what the explicit role of the media is and my opinion offered on how well this role s performed in Australia.
The notion of the media being the ‘Fourth Estate’ rests on the idea that the media's function is to act as a guardian of the public interest and as a ‘watchdog’ on the activities of government. The Freedom of Information Act legitimizes the media to perform this function. The FOI Act was legislated in 1982, over the next two decades each state would endorse similar legislation. This pivotal piece of legislation was the response to a series of Federal Inquires throughout the 1960s to 1980s that found the public sector to be somewhat detached and shrouded from public scrutiny. The implementation of the FOI Act has been representative of a triumph of citizen based accountability and thus symbolizes representative democracy. FOI aims to appropriately regulate the disclosure of public information within a framework of open government. The FOI theoretically entrusts the ‘watchdog’ role to the media in the interest of the wider public, this is done because public access to state information implies that the government can no longer decide whether potentially damaging information is disclosed to the community. Therefore the policy makers are made accountable for their actions through the media, any indiscretions will potentially (however, not always) be discovered and in turn those who are party to the fore mentioned wrong doings be held responsible. This ‘watchdog’ function has become ingrained in modern culture as the explicit ‘role’ of the media in a representative democracy and constitutes part of ‘The Fourth Estate’.
Australian Politics Website, http://australianpolitics.com/media/fourth-estate.shtml (accessed 12/09/10)
 Stubbs, R, ‘Freedom of information in Australia & Beyond’ Australian Journal of Political Science (2005) p 669
The mass media's influence on the ethics of public life, as characterized by the press's watchdog role in monitoring the conduct of government officials, is assumed to be vital to democracy. The effectiveness of this watchdog role is less clearly understood. Partial answers are found in the evolving institutional history of the press, including its control, ethics, laws, technology, organization, and the content of news stories. Just as reporters rarely discuss their ethics in terms of teleology and deontology, the press does not conceptualize in sophisticated terms its impact on the ethics of public employees. It traditionally finds motivation from the popular belief in watchdog success models from muckraking to Watergate. As partisanship, news values, and reporting techniques evolve, effectiveness varies. Research sheds light on media trends but focuses more on presidents than county clerks, more on political campaigns than government process. Optimism, as new doors and new technology open to reporters, is tempered by competition from the marketplace and the new digital feast promised consumers.