It was that very astute and remarkable journalist, C. P. Scott of the Manchester Guardian, who said ‘a newspaper has a moral as well as a material existence, and its character and influence are in the main determinated by the balance of these two forces’. This could be said of all individuals, all institutions, all businesses, all industries, all professions in a free society, but it applies with particular emphasis to some individuals (journalists are an example) and to some institutions (the press, radio, and television). Scott found the balance struck between the moral and the material existence of newspapers particularly significant because the newspaper ‘plays on the minds and consciences of men’. So, too, do the other mass media of communication.
Phrased in different terms, the problem of balance involves freedom on one side of the scale and responsibility on the other. Some publishers deny that this problem exists. They claim the freedom but reject the responsibility. Such is the attitude of the American publisher who said, ‘A newspaper is a private enterprise owing nothing whatever to the public, which grants it no franchise. It is emphatically the property of the owner, who is selling a manufactured product at his own risk.’ This perhaps, would have been a defensible view for a shoe manufacturer in the laissez-faire economy of the 19th century but seems to be out of step with the social trends of the 20th. But, at least, it has the merit of frankness.
Every school child in America learns of the first amendment to the U.S. constitution which ‘guarantees’ free speech and a free press. The revered first amendment, in the words of historian Charles Beard, granted the ‘right to be just or unjust, partisan or nonpartisan, true or false’. Newspapers without government were preferable to government without newspapers, Thomas Jefferson said. But Jefferson and the framers of the U.S. constitution were children of the Age of Enlightenment and they followed the libertarian theory of the press based on John Milton’s self-righting process, that process by which truth bests falsehood in free and open encounter. United States history in the late 18th century and early 19th, and Australian history in the second half of the 19th century, provide examples of this theory put into journalistic practice. These were periods of extreme partisan journalism when newspapers concentrated on opinions, not news, and nearly every shade of opinion had its organ. Some other journalistic philosophy might have served us better, but hindsight testifies that the babble of voices did not, on the whole, serve us badly. A political, economic, and social climate existed in which a multiplicity of voices could and did flourish.
In the second half of the 19th century came the development of what has been called ‘objective reporting’, the technique of the reporter as aloof spectator. Objective reporting had its origins in the demands for nonpartisanship created by cooperative news gathering for a number of publications otherwise unassociated and often diametrically opposed in political outlook. Objectivity was accelerated by the decline of the purely political journal and the rise of the medium devoted primarily to ‘scorekeeping’, a factual recounting of overt events judged to be news. And inevitably, then, news came to mean not what the editor judged as significant, but what he judged most consumers would most likely read. The skilful at guessing the current state of reader taste gained the seemingly incontrovertible evidence of success—the biggest circulation. Thus, the theory of journalism for the masses: ‘Give them what they want.’ Interestingly enough, this theory is defended, when anyone feels called upon to defend it (which is seldom), by appealing to the hallowed phrases of the libertarian philosophy: Man is a rational creature and is best left to judge for himself what is best for himself, and it is a free country so if he doesn’t like this newspaper or this television programme then he can read that magazine or that book, or go and play the poker machines at the club.
But the libertarian formula—from the self-righting process comes truth—assumes a multiplicity of voices, each with an equal chance to be heard. This assumption has never been in complete accord with the facts and has become increasingly less so as society has developed greater complexity with an inevitable greater reliance upon mass rather than individual communication as a thread for weaving the social fabric.
Some persons have superior ability in communication; some have or have created for themselves direct access to a large, even vast, audience, which, through the unavoidable facts of modem economics, is denied to others. And with the mass media all pervasive the truth- seeker finds himself so overwhelmed with pap he has little stomach for the search.
Communication today is dominated by publishing and broadcasting giants and, even assuming that these are benevolent despots, it is idle to argue that bigness and monopoly represent no danger, either current or potential, to the unhampered and undistorted dissemination of information. However, it is equally as idle to charge with Quixotic lance the combination which the forces of modem society have created in communications as well as in industry, and in labor. A new philosophy, a new theory, must be formulated to fit new conditions. The mass media must be assessed in terms of how well they serve and fit the society of the 20th century. Any theory of the mass media must be tested against the mentality of today’s age, not yesterday’s. Any institution which persists in operating in a new age, on the theories of the old, risks being modified or even scrapped by a dissatisfied society. The wreckage of discarded publications which strews the history of journalism would seem to be relevant evidence on this point.
The libertarian theory of the press developed out of the mentality of the Age of the Enlightenment. This was the age characterised by Newton’s theory of a perpetual motion world which ran timelessly according to immutable laws of nature, by John Locke’s philosophy of natural rights, by the theories of classical economics that a minimum of governmental interference would inevitably result in the equating of self-interest with public good, and by John Milton’s principle of the free market place of ideas. These theories, and others, produced a revolution in thought, in industry, in social organisation, and a revolution in mass communication. But revolutions are not solely a characteristic of the pre-20th century. Thought has continued and from it have come changes which have all but demolished the theories of the libertarian mentality. Evolution and the dynamic concepts of modem physics have shattered the Newtonian world; modern social science and philosophy have outmoded Locke’s natural rights theories; modern societies have repudiated classical laissez- faire economics; the freedom of the market place for ideas is suspect.
The intellectual climate of the mid-20th century seems to favor what has been described as the social responsibility theory of the press. This is a new theory only in a limited sense since it amounts to only a variation of the libertarian theory. Both theories emphasise the notion of freedom, thus rejecting governmental control and accepting the theory of a free idea market. But the new theory, recognising that modern-day economics limits access to the market place, emphasises that freedom must be balanced with a sense of responsibility.
A number of technological developments are behind the social responsibility theory. These include the increased size, speed, efficiency, and scope of the old media (primarily products of the printing press), the creation of new media (primarily products of electronics), the growing volume of advertising, the demand for communication threads to hold together an increasingly urbanised society, and the increasingly centralised control in the mass communication industry. These developments have paved the way for a view of the mass media, not as voices in the market place, but as profitable industries.
Also behind the social responsibility theory is development in thought which departs from the basic philosophy of the libertarian view in that it appears to place significantly less faith in man as a rational creature who can be depended upon to apply his reasoning faculties to the unending and difficult search for truth without prod- ding. But is this rather less optimistic view of the nature of man a radical or unprecedented departure from our cherished inheritance from the Age of Enlightenment? Or is it merely a logical extension of a notion which has already had its expression in such accepted but widely diverse developments as laws decreeing compulsory education, compulsory voting, driving tests, prohibiting pornographic literature, establishing an Australian Arts Council?
Constitutions declare the press free; could they also guarantee responsibility? There are examples. Article 22 of the constitution of Portugal: ‘Public opinion is a fundamental element of the politics and administration of the country; it shall be the duty of the state to protect it against all those agencies which distort it contrary to truth, justice, good administration and the common welfare.’ Or Article 187 of the Constitution of Ecuador: ‘The primary aim of journalism is to defend the national interests, and it constitutes a social service worthy of the respect and support of the state.’ But these are modern-day authoritarian views of the press which, in effect, deny freedom while defining responsibility. Any attempt by government to define responsibility of the press is too dangerous because it is only one short step more to ‘big brother’ and state regulation of ideas.
How then to achieve wide-spread responsibility in the mass media while preserving freedom? To the mass media themselves this question often poses itself as a conflict between public service and the need to survive without being obligated to government, public pressure groups, or subsidising agencies. Reports of the Commission on Freedom of the Press (in America), the Royal Commission on the Press (in Britain and Canada), and studies of such competent researchers as Wilbur Schramm suggest three general approaches to this problem.
Responsibility has been defined and adjured by organisations within the communication industry through codes of ethics. Examples include the code of the Australian Journalists’ Association, the ‘Canons of Journalism’ adopted by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, and the code of the American Broadcasters’ Association.
But there are difficulties involved in attempting to punish irresponsible behaviour through a code of ethics. It seems to be more troublesome to pinpoint precisely unethical behaviour in the realm of communication than in the realm of medicine or law, where the scope and form of practitioners’ activities can be defined with relative precision. There is a seeming reluctance, too, on the part of newspapermen to discipline or even publicly criticise fellow club members—a rather strange and abnormal sensitivity to criticism, in fact, whether from internal or external sources, for an institution which generally seems to assume it has the right and even the duty to criticise most other elements of society.
The American Society of Newspaper Editors’ ‘canons’ have never been applied as a disciplinary measure against a member in any really serious case. The one time when there seemed to be a probability that the code would be employed, the accused member was allowed to resign before any formal action was taken. In Australia, the Journalists’ Association code has been applied in a few cases, making it evident that this group regards its code as something more than mere words such as are pronounced solemnly at a fraternal initiation. But the difficulty in the Australian case lies in the fact that the A.J.A. code has no jurisdiction over proprietors and top-ranking editors.
Also suggested, and in one case being tried, is the establishment of independent agencies to appraise and report publicly on the performance of the mass media. This method is now being tried in Britain and has been proposed in both Australia and the United States, but prevented in both countries largely through the opposition of some, but not all, newspaper proprietors. An argument advanced in favor of these ‘watch-dog’ agencies, independent of mass media control, is that these media have claimed for themselves time and again the mantle of leadership. Their nature, in fact, forces them into this role. It is basic in a democracy that the citizenry has the right to appraise and criticise the performance of its leaders.
The third proposal involves education of the consumer to a more wholesome and informed interest in the mass media of communication. A great many individuals among the consuming public have still to learn that it is not the primary function of the mass media to provide mass tranquillisers. Many of the shortcomings of the mass media are in truth only reflections of the existing political, economic, and social climate. Some responsibility for the escapism and delusion pumped into society in massive doses by the mass media must rest with the consumers, but only some. The primary responsibility rests with those who control the media, since they have assumed, willingly or not, roles of leadership, and also because the still increasing ten- dency toward centralised control in the communications industry has here again emphasised the responsibility side of the balance scale. The tremendous power concentrated in the hands of a relatively few persons is an aspect of the 20th century’s communications revolution which most people do not appreciate—if, in fact, they are even aware that a communications revolution has taken place.
What is needed is informed consumer comment on the mass media, not consumer control. Communications magnates are fond of quoting the cliché about the public being the final judge and jury, implying that no newspaper, no magazine, no television programme will survive sustained public disfavour. But this is only the power of final veto, works erratically and slowly at best, and offers but a very meagre guide to what the public considers to be a responsible performance. On the other hand, danger lies in any organised consumer group since such tend to become pressure groups that advance the moral, economic, or political standards of only a limited section of the public. It is only too clear in the evidence of today’s movies and television programmes what the intervention of pressure groups can do in helping such media achieve a new level of shoddy art characterised by almost incredible inanity and pointlessness.
There is no easy way to force responsibility upon anyone or any institution. It can be accomplished to some degree in, for example, drug manufacturing and banking through legislation, but we have already seen that this has been rejected as a precendent too dangerous for serious consideration in the realm of ideas where the mass media, to serve a free society, must operate. This leaves us with only the possibility of falling back on the techniques and traditions of democracy, developing a flexible system of checks and balances that will provide not an infallible but at least a reasonably reliable appraisal of and guide for improvement of mass media performance. This would seem to involve all of the methods proposed, other than legislation, each functioning independently but with interaction: internal surveillance by the communicators themselves plus external surveillance by an independent agency or agencies and by unorganised but informed consumers. Formation of internal and external groups which make public in detail their investigations of and reports upon the performance of the communication media should aid greatly in achieving the third goal, an informed and critical public. Both internal and external agencies should make it part of their business to see that publications and broadcasts are regularly available that ignore the common-denominator-of-taste criterion but appeal directly to specialised tastes which now tend to be ignored (in fact sometimes seemingly deliberately insulted) by the mass media.
Coupled with all this must be a programme to exploit the resources of universities for the best possible preparation of journalists, and for advanced study, research, and critical evaluation of the communications field. Some might feel that such a programme for improvement of the product of press and airwaves could only result in cramming both with intellectualised wailing over the state of world culture, but a much more likely and to be hoped for result would be a more effective challenge to the mental worlds people carry about with them by exposing them more frequently to the harsh and the lovely in the world of reality.
The press and the other mass media of communication, whether they realise it or not, long ago passed the point where the rising tide of criticism can be stayed by arrogant indifference, born of absorption in their own importance, or by the flip comment: ‘We give the people what they want.’ That comment, taken at its face value, is irresponsible (if not immoral) in that it denies responsibility, attempts to shift responsibility to the shoulders of the customer. Just as the press holds the concert artist responsible for programme selection as well as performance, so should the press be held responsible for what it prints and how well it presents it.