Sunday, 10 July 2011

Trust in danger

Hot on the heels of Johann Hari's exposure as a plagiarist - and comments from many that "he's not the only one" - comes the disorderly demise of the News of The World amid allegations of phone hacking. And again, comments from many that "they're not the only ones".

Think back a few years. Do you remember the MPs expenses scandal? The initial belief from Conservatives that "it wasn't any of us" only to discover that yes, it was some of them as well? Suddenly policitians could not be trusted with the nation's finances. Corruption was exposed.

Now look at the financial crisis of 2008. I know I keep singing this tune, but what was exposed was excessive risk-taking and fraud in retail banking. Traditional, safe retail banks suddenly could not be trusted with our money. Admittedly considerable attempts have been made to blame investment banking for the crisis, because that's always been a bit dodgy, hasn't it? But the reality, that people know in their hearts, is that high street banks are not trustworthy.

The three professions of journalist, politician and banker all depend upon trust. Investigative journalists need to be believable or no-one will take their output seriously, and they need to be trustworthy or no-one will tell them anything. Politicians depend on trust for their mandate to govern - once the trust of voters is broken, the next election is lost. And banks need people to lend them their money, trusting that the banks will look after it properly.

Not only do these professions depend on trust, people need to be able to trust them. The media hold immense power over opinion and can massively influence behaviour simply by presenting researched facts and coherent opinion. Even if those facts are wrong people still believe them if they have been reported in a quality newspaper - as I discovered when I corrected the Guardian over the reporting of Barclays 2009 results.  As a nation we need to be able to trust that the people we elect to represent us in the Mother of Parliaments, and by extension the people we appoint to govern us, will act fairly, honourably and in our best interests. And as individuals we need to trust that our financial institutions will treat our money with respect and honour their obligations to us.

We have in the last few years had our trust in all three professions shattered. And we are deeply shocked. Confidence in the electoral process, in party politics and in government is at an all-time low. Politicians are seen as looking after their own interests and those of their rich friends, rather than the interests of the people they serve. Bankers are seen as ripping us off to make huge amounts in bonuses: these days, even used car salesmen and estate agents are regarded as more trustworthy than bankers.  And journalists are seen as amoral sensationalists, who will stoop to the lowest depths to spin a story and if necessary fabricate it, caring not at all about the cost to the lives and reputations of the people involved.

Isolated instances of bad (even criminal) behaviour by a member of a profession don't cause this deep-seated malaise. Dr. Harold Shipman, the worst serial killer in UK history, was able to kill so many people because his profession as a GP meant that people trusted him. But his conviction for murder didn't destroy people's trust in the medical profession. Similarly, the few examples there have been of teachers prosecuted for child abuse haven't resulted in huge numbers of people refusing to trust teachers with their children - but a much larger number of child abuse cases among Roman Catholic priests has resulted in a massive loss of trust in the priesthood.  Even if they are not paedophiles, priests are treated as if they might be.

So if journalists, politicians and bankers now are not trusted it is not because of individual bad behaviour by the likes of Johann Hari, Elliott Morley and Fred Goodwin. It is because there have, over a period of time, been sufficient examples of immoral or criminal behaviour by members of these professions to make people suspect that such behaviour is not exceptional but is the norm.

Loss of trust in such powerful professions is terrible. All three have really important roles to play in our society, though the power they wield has gone to their heads and they seem to have forgotten that their first priority is to serve the people of the country with honesty and integrity. All three are now discovering that they have no future without the trust of the people they serve.

And now it appears that the police, too, are part of the general malaise. Senior police officers have routinely failed to investigate possible criminal activity by newspapers and banks in the interests of "maintaining good relationships".  Cover-ups are the order of the day. Yes, Sir Paul Stephenson has done the decent thing and resigned - but Mark Reckless's blog today points out that he has got out just in time to avoid the dirt hitting him: in 2009 he failed to investigate major News of the World phone hacking allegations properly.  And Yates, of course, is still hanging on in there. Trust in the police - already undermined in some sectors of society by heavy-handed police tactics in UK Uncut marches - is sliding downhill at a rate of knots.

What can members of these professions do to regain our trust? What can be done to shift the public perception that there is a cosy elite who rub each other's backs? Cameron's statement that "we're all in it together" looks more like "they're all in it together".

I don't have any easy answers. Honesty and transparency would help, though that looks like it's in short supply these days.  But public servants - which is what all these people are, even those who ostensibly work for commercial organisations - must recognise that their first duty is to the people of the country. Behaviour that hurts ordinary people in the interests of selling more newspapers, making more money or getting more votes is unacceptable. Those who are shown to be indulging in such behaviour should be called to account.

4 comments:

  1. if i do this (whatever this is) and i can make money, i'm doing this.

    standards are for post-game analysts only.

    we don't see very widely, us humans.

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  2. Interesting post Frances, but I question your view that politics is a profession - unless you are classing them as professional idiots?

    Why do we need politicians? UK plc is just that one company with an economic arm - so why does it have to be politicised? Why not elect apolitical experts who have worked in the industry, rather than a load of people who know nowt but kid us they do? Without currying favour rather you as head of economics than Osborne or Cameron!

    In any event politicians and journalists are too dependent on one another so any definitive objectivity can never occur. Is not real journalism one of the checks on politicians overstepping their remit? So why not apolitical media? Is that also not their job, to report news as it happens and question/investigate government?

    Have not bankers and politicians become too close to each other?

    Just a few thoughts........?

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  3. This is a very important aspect for the functioning of our society as you write - and for the economy. Even if not interested in the fate of individual people, politicians should have an interest in banks to reestablish trust again. The economy - customers, investors, business people - depend on trust in banks. If this is lost, consumer and business plans will not be realised and investors postpone or skip projects or go elsewhere. Economic activity, which is one determinant of policy success, will slow down.

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  4. And the next profession to lose trust will, I suspect, be medicine.
    Already I'm hearing people voice suspicions that their treatment is decided on cost/profitability rather than medical need. I hear suspicions that GPs are not referring as they used to and, conversely, that they are telling patients to go directly to A&E without a referral.

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