“The first three estates” appeared in The Hans India, an English daily published from Hyderabad and other centres in its issue dated November 10, 2011.
‘What are the first three estates?’ screamed the woman police officer in Tamil-accented Telugu, in a scene in a popular Telugu movie. For some inexplicable reason, the Telugu people seem to love it if their speech is disfigured. In movies, Telugu is often spoken by Tamil, Kannada, Marathi and north Indian actors in their own accents. ‘Accented speech’ is used as a comic relief in movies in other languages, but in Telugu movies it appears to be de rigeur. If one goes by the movies made of and for the ‘younger’ generation, Telugu is often spoken in them in anything but a Telugu accent. As Telugu movie script writers are not partial to any language they mutilate English too - and not just in pronunciation but also in meaning - in their ‘Telugu’ dialogues. Then there is this ‘Telugu’ television presenter who conducts interviews with film celebrities and politicians in English-accented Telugu. And why not? If English can be spoken with a Telugu accent, why not the other way round?
‘I don’t know madam’, mumbled the cowering television journalist. ‘The first three estates are legislature, executive and judiciary’, the police officer pompously informed the journalist in a spirit of imparting wisdom, sweetly addressing him as ‘scum’. What she ‘endearingly’ called him doesn’t translate well into English, nor is ‘very’ printable, but that was the gist of it. One might wonder whether in real life senior police officers treat television journalists with such contempt or whether general knowledge quizzes forms part of police interrogation. Does the scene reflect a dumbing down of values in the highly competitive movie industry? But these questions are beside the point.
There was a time when movie scripts were well researched for accuracy. Therefore they were generally devoid of factual errors. Now everyone works to tight schedules and tighter deadlines. This is the electronic age; the age of SMSes and e-mails, and the need for instant gratification in everything. If anyone bothers to ‘research’ at all, Google is the gospel and Wikipedia the Veda. There is of course nothing wrong in using the internet but only as a starting point. A factual error in a dialogue in a minor scene in a movie may not raise an eyebrow. But it certainly does if it is repeated by the editor of a national news magazine. The north Indian editor of an English magazine could not have picked it up from a Telugu movie. But he made the same error in a last page editorial. Watch out, for there may be many more such pearls of wisdom in his much publicised memoirs slated to be released this month. In another last page editorial he referred to P. V. Narasimha Rao’s autobiographical novel, ‘The Insider’ as ‘The Outsider’. Deadlines, bloody deadlines! It is precisely for this reason, nowadays many newspapers run a ‘Corrections’ column.
All this confusion about the first three estates arose because of the use of the expression, ‘the fourth estate’. In the movie scene described earlier, the television journalist whimpers that he is from the ‘fourth estate’ adding helpfully as we Indians do when groping for words, ‘you know’. The officer would have none of it. She had time only to imparting wisdom and mouthing obscenities.
The coinage of the phrase ‘the fourth estate’ is attributed to Edmund Burke. In his book, ‘On Heroes and Hero Worship’ (1841) Thomas Carlyle says, Burke used it for the first time in a speech in the British House of Commons in 1787. Burke’s speech marks a very important occasion, that of opening parliamentary proceedings to the press. Looking up at the press gallery he said, “There are three Estates in Parliament, but in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder sits a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.” The three estates Burke referred to were the Lords Spiritual (the 26 Bishops in the House of Lords), the Lords Temporal (the secular members of the House of Lords) and the House of Commons. There is some dispute however to the quote attributed to Burke but the definitions of the first three estates were well established. In any case the phrase ‘the fourth estate’ connotes that the press is the fourth pillar of democracy, whose function is to provide checks and balances to the parliament and the executive. The first amendment to the US constitution specifically prohibits making any law that infringes on the freedom of the press. In India every time our rulers feel insecure – because of some expose or other - the first thing they look askance is at freedom of the press. They seek to weaken the fourth pillar!
The expression ‘fourth pillar’ might have led to the misconception that the other three pillars nay estates were the legislature, executive and judiciary. Then there is a fifth estate with various meanings attributed to it but generally refers to a class that is none of the four estates.