ICE blogs

December 15, 2008

Trust under the spotlight in new ICE book (+review by Peter Wilby)

Filed under: Blogroll, ethical space editors blog, Headlines, journalism — news_editor @ 7:17 pm

2007-2008 was the annus horribilis for the British media. All terrestrial broadcasters were found to have cheated their audiences through a variety of scams: Premium Rate Calling, fake competitions with results changed to suit the producers - and more. As a result, public trust in the media dipped.

Beyond Trust: Hype and hope in the British media, published by the Institute of Communication Ethics, examines this crucial ‘trust’ issue with lively, opinionated and controversial contributions from a wide variety of experienced and distinguished media practitioners. It places the contemporary controversy in a historical context, examines the implications for local newspapers - and explores the role media education can play in restoring trust. In addition:

  • Anthony Arblaster, former Tribune journalist, argues the case for scepticism
  • Dorothy Byrne, head of News and Current Affairs at Channel Four, claims: ‘TV journalism is so fair it makes Andy Pandy look dodgy’
  • Charlie Beckett, director of Polis@LSE, asks: ‘Can we trust the internet?’
  • Suzanne Franks, director of research at the Centre for Journalism, University of Kent, assesses the BBC’s performances in covering the Second World War and the ‘Troubles’ in Ireland
  • Richard Peel, director of corporate affairs for Camelot, explores critically the often tense relationships between PROs and journalists
  • John Tulloch, professor of journalism at the University of Lincoln, presents a wide-ranging overview of the trust debate in a controversial Afterword.

Beyond Trust (ISBN 978 1 84549 341 7) is edited by John Mair, senior lecturer in journalism at Coventry University and a former producer and director for BBC, ITV and Channel Four, and Richard Lance Keeble, professor of journalism at the University of Lincoln and joint editor of Ethical Space: The International Journal of Communication Ethics. It is published by Arima Publishing, of Bury St Edmunds (; £ 14.95)

Beyond Trust: Hype and Hope in the British Media
John Mair and Richard Lance Keeble (eds)
Bury St Edmunds, Abramis pp 108
ISBN 978-1-84549-341-7 (pbk)

Trust, everybody agrees, is an important thing for politicians. It’s a jolly bad thing for democracy that our leaders are so widely thought to be incapable of telling the truth and concerned only with getting and keeping power. When those politicians who are perceived as relatively honest are found to be telling lies or making dubious friendships, we say they are ‘wasting their most precious asset’.

But there’s something odd about all this. If trust is such a political asset, why do so many untrustworthy politicians get elected? Harold Wilson, one of the most slippery characters in British political history, won four general elections. Richard Nixon, known as ‘Tricky Dicky’, served two terms as US vice-president, and was twice elected president. Tony Blair, widely known as ‘Bliar’ after the Iraq war, still won in 2005. The politicians thought to be ‘honest’ - Michael Foot, John Major, William Hague, for example - tend to be losers. Kieron O’Hara, in Trust: from Socrates to Spin (2004), reckons that, since Clement Attlee, no successful British political leader has commanded significant public trust.

So does it matter to British journalists and broadcasters that, in their public trust ratings, they are down at the bottom of the league tables with politicians? You might think so: the Daily Telegraph marketed itself for years as ‘the paper you can trust’. The BBC, after last summer’s furores over Blue Peter and other programmes, had 19,000 staff attending its Safeguarding Trust workshops. In this excellent collection of essays on trust, Bob Satchwell, director of the Society of Editors, recalls how his first news editor would scream about losing readers’ trust whenever he got a name wrong. In the media, more than in any other industry, he writes, ‘public trust and ethics make up the bedrock on which brand values must be built’. Indeed, he states baldly, ‘without trust newspapers would not have any readers’.

Does anyone trust the Sun and Daily Mail?
Yet the evidence is ambiguous, to say the least. It is hard to believe anybody trusts the Sun and the Daily Mail, the most successful papers of the past 30 years. The local and regional press, which has always worked so hard to keep community trust, has suffered a more precipitous decline than the cynics of Fleet Street. The same can be said of the US press, which holds inquiries and runs front-page apologies when it gets big things wrong, such as the existence of WMDs in Iraq. And for all the public outcry over rigged polls and competitions on television, the viewers’ appetite for watching and taking part in such programmes seems not to have diminished at all, as another contributor, Matthew Mair, points out.

The uncomfortable truth is that, in the strict commercial sense, trust matters as little to the media as it does to politicians. The public looks mainly for other things in its leaders: authority, competence, an easy speaking style, an empathy with ordinary people. In the media, it looks for entertainment, high presentation values, engaging personalities, gripping stories. In both cases, most people seem to prefer loveable rogues to high-minded saints.

Trust, if it is an issue at all, depends on your definition. What exactly should we trust the media to do? You can trust the Mail to produce good reads and arresting pictures and to speak its mind strongly, even hysterically - but not to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Besides, telling the truth isn’t always the best way of winning public trust. To use an example cited in this collection by Kevin Marsh, editor of the BBC College of Journalism, telling the truth about the MMR vaccine (that it didn’t cause autism) would, at one stage, have ‘exposed’ a journalist as a lackey to the medical and political establishment and, therefore, not to be trusted.

Why trust matters - enormously
None of this means that trust in the media doesn’t matter at all. It matters enormously to some people: investors, for example, who read the Financial Times because they trust it to give accurate information on economic and business issues. It matters, in a different sense, to journalists going about their jobs: people won’t give you an interview or let you have a picture of their murdered son if they don’t trust you, and low levels of general public trust account for journalists being excluded from, for example, the family courts. It matters to us all, ethically and socially because, without trust, social relations corrode.

This collection is excellent on how we got where we are and how commercial imperatives, many of them created in the Thatcher era, changed the way TV in particular operates. But there’s an elephant in the room: as a selling asset in media, as in politics, trust is much overrated.

Peter Wilby, former editor of the Independent on Sunday and New Statesman, media commentator for the Guardian

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