The social responsibility theory of the press is one of four theories that have developed over the years.
From ancient times, expression of opinion and ideas has been a natural part of man.
Ability to speak and the thinking faculty that man is endowed with, enable man to relate with other men harmoniously and to organise his own life and that of society well.
Expression, in spoken or written form, has encountered obstacles and enhancements over the years.
Efforts of man to remove the obstacles and add to the enhancements, have led to the creation of theories and ideas on free expression and freedom of the press.
Four major theories about what the press should be and do, that have developed in history are: the authoritarian, libertarian, social responsibility and the Soviet or socialist-communist.
The authoritarian theory aims at promoting and advancing authoritarian rule of a monarch or military dictatorship.
Founded on laissez-faire principles, the libertarian theory seeks to inform, educate, entertain, help mould public opinion and provide space for buyers and sellers of goods and services to meet to do business.
The Soviet or socialist-communist theory was born out of the Bolshevik revolution in 1917.
Its purpose was to promote communist propaganda and oppose Western political and economic ideas that were likely to reverse the revolution.
Being an outgrowth of the libertarian theory, the social responsibility theory performs almost all the functions of the libertarian.
However, rampant abuse of press freedom led the development of the social responsibility concept that imposes certain responsibilities on the press and their owners.
It demands responsibility that should reflect in obedience of the laws, professionalism and the public interest.
This theory is the theme of this article.
Why was the social responsibility theory developed? How was it developed? What purpose was it intended to serve?
It happened that the libertarian theory had, in practice, put more power into the hands of mass media practitioners and owners.
More freedom and less responsibility became what mass media scholars and the media practitioners had described as “negative freedom” -- fanned by the emerging communication revolution.
It became negative because it was abused press freedom.
Power to own the press and broadcast or publish rested with a few people who wielded enormous power.
It was found out that the libertarian theory, in practice, was losing its meaning and worth with news reports and comments becoming less and less objective and truthful.
In the United Kingdom, a Royal Commission on the Press established at the behest of the National Union of Journalists, studied the practices of the mass media and made some recommendations.
A General Council of the Press was established as part of the recommendations “to encourage a sense of public responsibility and public service”.
At the same period, in the United States, the Commission on Freedom of the Press was set up in 1944. It consisted of scholars and was headed by Robert Hutchins.
Notably, the work of the commission was supported by American journalists and publishers who supplied ideas and portions of their own professional codes of conduct.
The commission published its report in 1947 and issued five “consequential orders” on what the American people demanded of the press.
First, for the press to present always “a truthful, comprehensive, and intelligent account of the day’s event in a context which gives them meaning”.
Second, the commission wanted the press to serve as “a forum for exchange of comments and criticism”.
Third, the commission requested the press to provide a representative picture of the constituent groups in society to avoid stereotyping in the US.
Fourth, it charged the press with the responsibility for “the presentation and classification of the goals and values of the society”.
Lastly, the commission recommended that the press be accorded the right to information because that was necessary for the media to perform its roles well.
On ways to improve press performance, the Hutchins Commission put the onus on three sectors of the society – the press, the public and the government.
For the press, the commission asked it to “assume a professional spirit”.
“Whatever may be thought of the older, established professions, the law and medicine, each of these professionals as a whole accepts a responsibility of the service rendered by the profession as a whole and there are some things which a truly professional man will not do for money,” the commission observed.
It also demanded from the public certain duties.
It asked the public to be aware of the enormous power the press wielded, its shortcomings and of its failure to serve public interest.
The commission recommended that non-profit institutions should help improve press performance; schools of high learning should do “advanced study, research and critical publications in the field of mass communications”.
It recommended the establishment of a body “to appraise press performance and to report on it each year”.
On the side of the government, the commission suggested that the government could “adopt new legal remedies to rectify chronic, patent abuses of press freedom. And it can enter the communication field to supplement the privately owned media.’’
It recommended that “government should help society to obtain the services it requires from the mass media, if a self-regulated press and the self-righting features of community life are insufficient to provide them… It may enact legislation to forbid flagrant abuses of the press which ‘poison the wells of public opinion’ ”.
“One’s right to free expression must be balanced against the private rights of others and against vital social interests,’’ the commission added.
“Individuals who still speak of press freedom as a purely personal right are a diminishing breed, lonely and anachronistic,” according to Theodore Peterson, author of the essay: The Social Responsibility Theory of the Press in the book, Four Theories of the Press (1974).
It has been several decades since Hutchins Commission published its report, and the communication revolution has advanced beyond human expectations, creating an information superhighway, an information age and an information society.
The information revolution and information superhighway make it possible to transmit information in words, figures and pictures very quickly to parts of the world – using the mobile phone and the computer.
These developments have compounded the “sins” of the mass and social media of the 21st Century – with fake news, misinformation and disinformation multiplying.
It is apparent that the mass media in the democratic world have adopted the social responsibility theory as a useful guide and are observing its tenets.
For Ghana, it appears that provisions of Chapter 12 of the 1992 Ghana Constitution (Freedom and Independence of the Media) are founded firmly on the principles of the social responsibility theory of the press.
In line with recommendations of the US Commission on Freedom of the Press, the Ghana government should not feel restrained to take reasonable measures in response to abuses of press freedom.
For the purpose of strengthening the hand of government in the present media environment, it is suggested that Article 167 (c) of the Constitution should be amended to enable the government to supervise the State-Owned Media (SOM) jointly with the National Media Commission and the SOM.