This is the second part of Peter Kellner’s critique of UK media. The first was about Britain’s love of celebrity culture 

The details of some MPs’ expenses claims were truly shocking, and deserved to be probed and reported. But anyone with an open mind who comes into contact with politicians also finds that most of them spend much of their time as diligent, hard-working people who tend to their constituents’ problems and care about Britain’s future.

When party leaders adopt policy compromises it is usually not out of intellectual flabbiness or political cowardice but because they have concluded that there are no simple and easy ways forward – however much tabloid editorials like to pretend that there are.

In short, the typical MP is part-saint and part-sinner. But if journalists are exclusively interested in their sins, then we should not be surprised if the public concludes that they are mostly up to no good. And that is precisely what has happened. Earlier this year, in a survey for the David Butler Lecture organised by the Reuters Institute and the BBC, YouGov found that:

• Sixty-two per cent of people think ‘politicians tell lies all the time – you can’t believe a word they say’

• Just 15% think their own local MP is doing a good job

• Sixty-six per cent think that ‘however they start out, most MPs end up becoming remote from the everyday lives and concerns of the people they represent’.

Other surveys have found that trust in politicians has declined markedly over the past decade. This is not just a response to the expenses scandal. The process began years ago, and it applies also to other groups of people in positions of authority, such as business executives, the police, and civil servants.

Journalists too: by providing such a persistently alarming account of modern public life in Britain, they have encouraged their readers to distrust elites of every stripe, including themselves.

I realise, of course, that my hypothesis – that our contemporary journalistic culture bears some of the blame for an excessively negative public view of those in authority – is impossible either to prove or disprove.

Social science cannot conduct pure, controlled laboratory tests of rival theories in the way that physical sciences can. Yet I find it hard to suppose that the mass media have played no part in creating a society in which the average Briton is less interested in politics and more interested in celebrities than people in the rest of Europe (see my previous post). Indeed, the squalid phone-hacking saga reflects the most extreme form of the media’s pursuit of this agenda.

So what should our media do? To avoid being misrepresented, let me stress that I am NOT arguing for any curbs on exposes of bad behaviour. I AM arguing for a more complete account of what politicians and others in authority actually do.

Take those terrible stories about MPs and their duck houses, moats, and second-home flipping. What did the total amount of venality add up to – that is, in terms of clear and cynical dishonesty, not the grey area of dubious ‘expenses’ that the Commons officials considered at the time to be legitimate? I reckon that they amounted to well under a million pounds a year. Had other countries’ legislators been probed in the same detail, I’d wager that few would have experienced less corruption than ours.

Our MPs were depicted as world champion crooks, whereas a proper global league table of venality would consign them to the relegation zone. A newspaper investigation that reached that conclusion would have been important, and actually rather interesting. But it would have contradicted the prevailing narrative, so wasn’t attempted, even by more serious papers and programmes: they, too, have been influenced by the ‘circus noir’ agenda of the tabloid media more than they might care to admit.

My plea, then, is for the media, and in particular their most popular forms, not to hold back on exposing villainy but to investigate and report MORE of what people in authority do: their serious attempts to tackle difficult problems and solve awkward dilemmas, not just their attempts to line their pockets and do down their colleagues. The media should abide by the same rule that applies to witnesses in court: ‘to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’.

A true democracy is a well-informed democracy. The paradox of Britain today is that we know more about our MPs, in particular, than ever before; but, to adapt what John Birt and Peter Jay argued a generation ago, this increase in knowledge has been accompanied by a decline in understanding. This is part of the price we pay for the victory of ‘circus noir’ journalism.

This is the second of two extracts from Peter Kellner’s essay The Triumph and Perils of ‘Circus Noir’ Journalism, edited and reprinted with the kind permission of the author and YouGov. Thanks also to Nic Newman, editor of the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2012 in which the essay first appeared.

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by Pratish

    on 7 Aug 2012 09:12

    Not surprising there is such a consistent, high level of mistrust of politicians anywhere in the world. At least in the UK though, there is some level of government accountability and real consequences if MPs are found to be engaging in dodgy practices of any form. Compare this to South Africa where there seems to be zero responsibility for even tasks clearly within the remit of an MP (read http://www.wonkie.com/2012/07/09/government-accountability/ for one well-publicised recent example in the news)... let alone MPs accepting responsibility and consequences for acts of corruption.

    Peter, I'm all for the media investigating and exposing villainy - one can only hope that other countries follow the UK in terms of enforcing some form of real punishment for those that are exposed - or at the very least publicising the fact that the said villain has got off scot-free!

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