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The trouble with trust

Mark Thompson Mark Thompson | 18:15 UK time, Tuesday, 15 January 2008

In September I blogged here about the importance of trust in the BBC. Today I have given a speech in Westminster which picks up on some of the same themes but also addresses the wider impact on society of trust in institutions. The full text of my speech is below and I'd be interested to know what you think about it.

THE TROUBLE WITH TRUST

Until last year, Britain’s broadcasters might have been tempted to think that trust was somebody else’s problem.

Survey after survey showed that the public’s trust in broadcasters and in radio and TV news was much higher than it was for politicians, for print media, indeed for virtually all other British institutions.

We covered the question of trust. We mounted debates about it. We knew, we thought, what a precious commodity our own level of public trust was. We believed we were taking all necessary steps to protect it. We did not feel any particular sense of vulnerability or of impending danger.

Well, what a difference twelve months makes! Since last spring, the BBC, ITV, GMTV, Channel 4 and FIVE have all had salutary lessons to learn on the subject of trust. At the BBC, we’re still hard at work doing everything we can to ensure that the problems we had with phones and with the launch of our documentary about the Queen never happen again.

But our own experience and our own painful but illuminating conversations with the British public about trust – how it can be damaged, how it can be restored – has given me a fresh perspective and a fresh sense of urgency on a broader topic: which is the claim that there is a crisis of trust and belief in people and institutions across public life.

Beast vs beast?

Last June the outgoing Prime Minister Tony Blair gave a lecture at Reuters about politics, public life and the media. It was quickly dubbed the ‘feral beast’ speech – though to call it that makes the Prime Minister’s argument sound more strident and less self-critical than it actually was.

After ten years in office – and ten years at the epicentre of the news cycle – Mr Blair’s conclusion was a bleak one. ‘I do believe’, he said [that]: '… this relationship between public life and media is now damaged in a manner that requires repair. The damage saps the country’s confidence and self-belief; it undermines its assessment of itself, its institutions; and above all, it reduces our capacity to take the right decisions, in the right spirit for our future.’

Now you can debate Mr Blair’s detailed diagnosis. For him, the root cause is structural change within the media industry: new technology, competition, fragmentation. For others of course, it’s the politicians what done it – not least Tony Blair himself – by ushering in an era of spin and media manipulation.

But many people across the political spectrum who will always disagree about that, nonetheless agree that Mr Blair put his finger on a genuine and serious issue.

They, like him, fear that – through whatever combination of causes and actions and reactions – large swathes of the British public have lost their faith in politicians, in our democratic process, in other public institutions, and in much of the media to boot. And they suspect that, although other factors may be at work, one critical element in this loss of faith is the unhealthy and vituperative relationship that exists between politicians and public institutions on the one hand, and the media on the other.

So this afternoon, I want to try to offer answers to two questions. First, is Tony Blair right to suggest that the relationship between the media and the public sphere in Britain is severely damaged? Has it indeed contributed to a general crisis in trust? And second, assuming that the answer to the first question is at least a partial ‘yes’, what could the BBC do to help begin that task of repair?


The BBC and trust

But let’s begin with the lessons we’ve learned in our own backyard. They are that trust in 21st century Britain is fragile for everyone. Trust in a given institution may be based on a great tradition and great inherited values, but it depends on what you do today. It has to be earned and earned again.

And the higher the trust, the higher the public expectation.

Graph showing

This is an Ipsos-MORI poll from this month which asked a thousand UK adults to rank a set of British institutions in terms of trust. On the left, those which members of the sample said they trusted most or next most. On the right, those which respondents said they trusted least or next least.

Given the BBC’s public service mission and its privileged status, perhaps it’s not surprising that it gets the highest score for trust and the lowest for distrust – and you can see how in both cases it fares rather better than ‘media in general’.

But this ranking means that the public bring completely different expectations to us than they do even to other public service broadcasters. And that was our experience last summer.

Unlike some of the scandals in commercial television where the public lost millions of pounds, the problems we uncovered at the BBC involved no commercial gain. Typically the stakes were small and the prizes nominal. But the public told us they still thought they were very serious. ‘You’re the BBC,’ they told us, ‘you’re meant to be different.’

I agree. I agree passionately with that statement. So too do the overwhelming majority of my colleagues at the BBC. They were as surprised and angry as I was when we discovered the extent of the problem.

But the public told us something else as well: something encouraging. After I’d announced the steps we’d take in response to these problems, we asked our audience how many of them trusted the BBC to ‘sort out the current situation and do the right thing in the future’. 73% said they did – a figure, by the way, that had grown to 76% by year’s end.

Graph asking

Trust in the BBC is both high and resilient not because nothing ever goes wrong – I think we can safely rule that out – but because when things inevitably do sometimes go wrong, the public still believe that we’re likely to have the determination, the values and the wherewithal to put them right again, and that we’ll be open and honest as we do so.

This is not something to take for granted. It is something to build on.

The wider question of trust

But let’s turn now to the wider question of public trust and Tony Blair’s contention that somehow the relationship between the media and politicians and the rest of the public sphere has broken down.

Graph asking

This is the kind of chart that has convinced many people that we face a crisis in public life. Again, it’s a poll of 1,000 adults and it asks the question: do you think politicians are out merely for themselves, for their party, or to do their best for their country? As you can see, only around a third of respondents think politicians put country first. Well over half think the answer is either themselves or their party.

So: is this the result of a feral modern newspaper industry or the digital revolution? Is it generational change and the death of deference? Or is it just over-aggressive questioning on the Today programme?

Well, no actually. This sample was taken in August 1944. Britain is in the middle of a war of national survival. The Government is drawn from all the parties. And yet.

Ask the same question today and you get a pie-chart which shows some further decline. But my point is that British scepticism about those in public life is not a new phenomenon. Most people doubted politicians’ motives even in the good old days.

You’ve already seen some fresh work Ipsos-MORI has done for us. I’m also indebted to them for sharing some of the tracking work they have done on this question over many years.

Graph asking Which professions do you trust to tell the truth?

Here’s their long-running survey examining trust in different professions over the past twenty-five years with doctors and teachers at the top and Government ministers and journalists at the bottom. Now I recognise, of course, that different questions asked over different periods can suggest different trends, but Ipsos-MORI’s work over a generation does not show clear evidence of a large-scale long-term decline, let alone a crisis. Both ministers and journalists seem to be bumping along a very low base.

But it’s a different story when one looks at institutions rather than professions and individuals, and especially when you look at Government.

If you looked closely at my first chart, you’ll already have seen the Government’s extraordinarily low results among institutions the public say they trust most and least. Tempting of course for politicians and commentators to blame that on short-run political events or to lay the blame on one party or one administration.

Here too though it’s useful to look at the data over a longer period.

Chart asking the question

This chart for instance shows responses to the question: how much do you trust a British government of any party to place the needs of this country above the interests of their own party? The chart shows those who answer: ‘almost never’. You can see the line rising pretty inexorably from the early 90s onwards. Not a recent trend. Not a trend, on this evidence, that can readily be laid at the door of one party or one political event.

The reason why

Why then is it happening? And does it actually matter?

The why, of course, is endlessly debated. I’ve read explanations which range from the British weather to the young people of today to post-modernism and the hermeneutics of suspicion. You’ll be relieved to hear that I’m not going to try to get to the bottom of all that this afternoon. I want to focus instead on proposed explanations and factors which go to the heart of the relationship between public life, media and the public themselves – and which, at least in theory, we might be able to do something about.

In his speech, Tony Blair suggested that one of the reasons there is so much cynicism and negativity about politics and public life is because of the incessant way in which the British media attack motive.

‘It is not enough for someone to make an error,’ he said. ‘It has to be venal. Conspiratorial.’

One of the tasks of a free press is to uncover public malfeasance. The media is right to be alert to it and to pursue and investigate any evidence that it is taking place. But no good – and almost certainly some ill – is served by exaggeration or endlessly crying wolf. Nor is there any reason to believe that British politics is more prone to corruption than comparable countries: if anything the evidence suggests it is rather less so.

It’s easy therefore to understand why British politicians find the implicit or explicit insinuation of systemic corruption and venality so unfair and wounding.

However, this does not seem to be one of the main drivers of broader public disillusion. We got Ipsos-MORI to ask those who say they don’t trust politicians – that’s 83% of people, by the way – to tell us why.

Chart asking

And you can see that only 6% say it’s because they believe politicians are corrupt. The biggest reason people give is because, in their view, politicians don’t tell the truth. People also think politicians ‘say what they want people to hear’ and they don’t give straight answers’ – all issues related to the theme of truth telling.

The British public do not believe that our political system is riddled with corruption – they’re actually rather less likely to say they think politicians are in it for selfish motives than citizens in many other western countries. Many of them do believe that, for whatever reasons, politicians and government ministers and officials cannot be relied upon to tell them anything like the whole truth.

Graph of

Only 6% of the public last November strongly agreed with the statement: ‘I trust the Government to tell the truth’. 25% tended to disagree. And no less than 44% said they strongly disagreed with the statement.

Chart showing

Do you think that government figures are produced without interference? 54% think not. Do you think the Government uses figures honestly? No less than 60% of people believe it does not. These results really are exceptionally low in comparison to other countries – even though, again, it’s not obvious that the track record of British governments or British officialdom in the matter of truth and lies is any worse than their equivalents in other developed countries.

Putting broader cultural and social trends on one side, it seems reasonable to conclude then that one of the biggest drivers of the loss of confidence in government, and by extension in other institutions, is not sleaze, not contempt for the motives that lead people into public life, but rather a deep and growing scepticism about whether either the system or the individuals within it can ever be trusted to reveal what’s really going on.


Does it matter?

But does it really matter? Does an exaggerated suspicion of government and official Britain lead to serious real world consequences?

Onora O’Neill raised one objection in her brilliant Reith lectures on the subject of trust. It is that often the public’s actions belie what they tell pollsters about trust: they claim to distrust an institution or a service and yet continue to use it, apparently quite happily.

In a way we saw this in broadcasting in 2007. Surveys definitely suggested falling public confidence in phone voting, yet the actual numbers of people voting – at least on BBC programmes like Strictly Come Dancing – went up, not down.

Perhaps then the public’s claims are part of a feedback loop – they know they’re expected to say they’re sceptical. Perhaps saying you’re sceptical feels more mature and worldly wise. Perhaps it’s a form of gaming or trading, carried out in the belief that the bolshey customer gets better service than the acquiescent one.

All of these arguments probably have some force. And it’s true that people get on with their lives and the UK remains a going concern despite the very high levels of stated scepticism. Talk of a crisis may be exaggeration.

And yet there are very powerful reasons for believing that what the public say about trust in public life does matter.

Because it may discourage people from getting engaged in politics or in public life, or even in taking an open-minded interest in the big issues of the day.

Because many of the issues which all parties believe this country faces – from climate change to obesity and population health – depend on the public believing new facts and in some cases new advice on what they and their families should do.

Because, at least arguably, it may feed a more general sense of disillusion and negativity about national life which has its own problematic social consequences.

And finally – this is something you would perhaps expect a public service broadcaster to say – because it is intrinsically unsatisfactory and unhealthy for a significant proportion of the population to have a distorted view of reality.

This is why I am also unpersuaded by the argument that, far from worrying about excessive scepticism, we should rejoice in it.

This argument comes down to a belief that all scepticism is good and that therefore the more the merrier. Governments and other public institutions do sometimes lie or withhold the truth and we should always be on guard against it. According to this account, exaggerated scepticism is a small price to pay for this vigilance and is certainly to be preferred to public credulity or deference.

Now yes of course: proportionate, rational scepticism is healthy and a civic good – as well as being a prime building block of good journalism. But that doesn’t mean that it’s also healthy to exaggerate and generalize weaknesses even if they are indeed true of some parts of public life some of the time.

The interplay between scepticism and credulity is a good deal more complex than this argument suggests. Are those who are more sceptical about politicians also more sceptical about other things as well? Actually the evidence points rather the other way: the less you trust politicians and public institutions, the more likely you are to believe in outré conspiracy theories, not to mention witches and warlocks and so on.

And sometimes the two things come together. Take aliens – and, by that, I mean not illegal immigrants, but ET. No less than 30% of the UK population believe that one of the pieces of truth that the British and other governments are keeping from them is evidence of extra-terrestrial life.

Now we know – because some of them regularly take part in BBC phone-ins and on-line debates – that there are plenty of sophisticated, empirically-based sceptics out there. But for millions of other people, scepticism seems to form part of a complex system of belief and disbelief and anxiety. It is not obvious that excess suspicion or distrust helps this group in any way at all.

What the evidence points to, I think, is of a large group of the population who feel outside a charmed circle of knowledge and power. Modern public policy is fiendishly complex and debates about it are conducted in a mysterious, technocratic language which – despite the best efforts of the BBC and some of the rest of the media – many people find hard to understand. This by the way may be why, as Onora O’Neill pointed out, the modern mechanisms of accountability, which are riddled with this impenetrable language, have not only failed to arrest the decline in trust but may have accelerated it.

It’s not that people in this group feel that all politicians are liars. It’s rather that they find much of what politicians say, not just unverifiable, but unintelligible; and that they fear that the system drives politicians and others to distort the truth – and to leave critical parts of it out.

The task of repair

But if this analysis is right, what, if anything, can be done to repair the damage?

Most people who’ve talked or written about this issue have had rather more to say about the diagnosis and in particular about who’s to blame for it, than about any kind of cure. Many of the politicians who have talked to me about trust are pessimistic about whether either the political parties or the media are really in a position to change, even if they wanted to.

Tony Blair ended his Reuters speech with some thoughts about the future regulation of the press. I have to say it’s difficult to see how any new regulation consistent with press freedom could significantly address the ills he listed that day. And if my diagnosis of the problem is right, tighter regulation might actually increase rather than decrease public distrust.

So what can be done? The issue calls for reflection from everyone: politicians, media, public. I’m certainly not going to attempt to lecture anyone else this afternoon on their duties or on the ways in which they should change.

I also recognise that this issue is too complex and too deep-seated for it to be conceivable that any one player, however powerful and well-intentioned, could even begin to effect a turn-around on their own.

And yet I believe it’s important that someone makes the first move. And that no one is better placed to do that than the BBC.

In a moment, I’ll set out some of the practical steps that I believe we should take within and beyond BBC journalism to start to address the wider issues I’ve raised this afternoon.

But I recognise that we can’t hope to make a difference on these issues unless and until we can demonstrate that we’ve put our own house in order. So how is our own task of repair going? Where does the BBC itself stand in terms of public trust at the start of 2008?

Last summer I announced a large-scale programme of work in response to our problems with interactivity and the documentary about the Queen.
It involved:
• first, a commitment to comprehensive self-examination followed by full disclosure;
• second, a set of specific measures to make the chance of a recurrence as small as humanly possible;
• third, not just training, but the start of a BBC-wide conversation about our editorial values and the boundaries of acceptable practice in broadcasting.

Next week we’re reporting progress to the BBC Trust and, though I certainly would not claim that every issue is resolved or that the task of repair is complete, I do believe that we’ve come a long way over the past six months.

The decision to do a comprehensive trawl through our entire output was time-consuming and led to some pretty painful headlines, but it was in my view the only way of ensuring we understood the full extent of the problem – and the only firm basis on which to restore public trust.

The BBC is the only broadcaster to have conducted a comprehensive trawl. I believe that such trawls should take place across the entire industry and that, just as in our case, they should be followed by full disclosure.

I also believe that we’ve been consistent across the BBC in our response to last year’s editorial problems, in particular in relation to sanctions against individuals.

There is a world of difference between a moment of blind panic and premeditated deception or between the editorial accountability of a junior member of staff and a editor or senior creative leader. We built both of these considerations into our handling of each case.

Disciplinary processes are inevitably controversial and miserable for all involved. And yet, unless there is some evidence of individuals being held fairly and proportionately to account, and of unwise or unacceptable decisions leading to consequences, it’s hard to persuade the public that there are any meaningful boundaries at all. Well, at the BBC there are such boundaries.

News that training and seminars would form an important part of our response was greeted at the time with some ridicule. And if this had really meant ‘integrity training’ or somehow trying to teach people how to tell the truth that ridicule would have been fully justified. Instead it’s been an exploration of the dilemmas which contemporary broadcasting can throw up which almost everyone who’s been involved so far – and I include myself in this – has found engaging, surprising, challenging. Within three months all 17,000 programme and content makers in the BBC will have attended. We’ll also have made all the key materials available to the indie and freelance sectors and the rest of the industry.

So how has the public reacted to all of this? Overall approval of the BBC at the end of 2007 was higher than it was at the start. Many factors influence approval and our strong autumn and Christmas schedules – the Cranford effect, if you like – no doubt helped. But it also suggests that the impact of the phones and the Queen may prove a transitory one.

Chart illustrating people's response to

This chart shows monthly responses, scored out of ten, to the statement: ‘I trust the BBC’. You can see a dip beginning in August after the main phone revelations and continuing through to October, but with real signs of recovery by the turn of the year.

Chart of

And this chart shows another big sample of UK adults answering the question: ‘which of the following broadcasters do you most trust to tell you the truth?’ Again it shows a low for the BBC in October followed by a recovery.

Now, as I said, I do not claim that any of this means that our work in responding to these serious failings is complete or that public confidence is fully restored yet. They do suggest progress though. Perhaps they should also give other institutions who have issues with public trust a sense of hope.

Last summer I believe the public wanted to see – not a witch-hunt, not complicated excuses – but a BBC which was prepared to stand up, take responsibility and actually do something.

If you do that, and do it openly and consistently, I think the evidence is that the public will back you.

The BBC’s role in addressing the wider issue of trust

But let me end with some tangible suggestions about what the BBC could do to help begin a broader response to the challenge of trust.

The BBC reaches some 85% of the British population every week with its journalism across TV, radio and the web. It is far away the most trusted provider of news in this country, and number one in the world as well. It does not face the same commercial and competitive pressures as most other media. It is for all these reasons that the BBC has a special opportunity – and in my view a special duty – to act.

Twenty years ago under John Birt, the BBC struck out in a new direction in its journalism. More serious. More expert. With more room for explanation and analysis.

I thought then that this was the right future for journalism at the BBC – and I still do today. It’s the cornerstone of the BBC’s whole public service mission.

I’m proud of the way we bring news to Britain and the world and I’m proud of the thousands of my colleagues who do it around the clock and around the year. I’m proud of their fearlessness and their toughmindedness in getting at the truth.

It’s sometimes suggested that the solution to the problem of trust would be to tone down some of our interviewing. If only people like John Humphrys and Nick Robinson and Jeremy Paxman were less aggressive, the public’s confidence in politics and politicians would be restored and their cynicism would evaporate.

Well, not on my watch. I don’t believe that the public want to see less rigour in our questioning of politicians and other public figures: if anything, they want to see more.
Should our interviewing be conducted with courtesy? Of course it should. I believe that it almost always is. Should there be room across our output for more conversational settings where the public can see the human side of public figures, and more expansive, less adversarial settings where they can lay out their ideas at greater length? They should be and there are.

But serious politicians have always known that it’s in the big and sometimes tough interviews that you really build credibility and public confidence. Softening them – or softening the BBC’s commitment to uncompromising investigative journalism – is really not the answer.

But there are plenty of things we can do. The first to transform the way we connect British democracy – and all its many democratic institutions – to the public.

We’ve always known that a core BBC mission was, not just to report journalistically on Parliament and the wider democratic process, but to be the public gallery from which citizens could see and hear proceedings for themselves. And we’ve done that, year in and year out, across our services.

Now we believe that the BBC has an amazing chance to bring this gallery to life, to make it real, to make it potentially relevant for every citizen and every secondary school child in this country.

We want to take our coverage of Westminster, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the European Parliament, as well as local councils up and down the land and turn them into the most engaging, the most creative multimedia portal for democracy in the world, using BBC Parliament and our other television, networks, radio, the web and mobile. Direct access to information about your MP or representative: how they vote, what they stand for, how you can contact them. Survival guides and in-depth analysis of current debates and current legislation. Easy ways, for anyone who wants to, to plug into and take part in the debate. And all of it available to every secondary school in the UK as part of a strengthened commitment by BBC Learning to supporting citizenship and modern media literacy.

We don’t want to do all this on our own, but in partnership with some of the existing sites which are pioneering web democracy – and with the democratic institutions themselves. Parliament and its sister institutions already have powerful forms of scrutiny and accountability that, to be honest, very few people outside their walls know anything about. We want to work with them to change that.

Second we want to build on the success of the College of Journalism and again to work with partners – the Reuters Institute, the key university departments, I hope other media players – to drive an industry-wide focus on journalistic values and standards as well as craft. Not arid training, not a series of management instructions, but a debate and an exchange of experiences between practitioners. And we’ll share as much as we can of our own multimedia journalism resources not just with partners but with the public themselves.

But there are also ways in which I believe our output needs to evolve and develop.

The stories and the issues that confront Britain and the world in early 2008 are more complex and more inter-connected than at any time in my journalistic career. The Middle East and the issue of international terrorism. Climate change. Migration. The stability of the global financial system. The modernisation of public services.

We should create more opportunities for in-depth, multi-platform set-pieces on all of these stories: at least three pan-BBC events each year across the home services – last year’s Iraq Week being the model - and at least three internationally as well.

And we should make more space for ideas about policy and policy choices. That implies not just politicians and other public figures who have and want to share fresh ideas – it also implies politicians who are prepared to enter into a different kind of debate. We can’t make that happen, but the BBC should create the space more often in which it could happen.

And when a politician or some other public figure has something new to say, we should strive harder not to jump so quickly to the reaction to what they’ve said that the public never quite digest what they actually said in the first place. The instinct to analyse, to place a given political utterance in a broader context, is a good one – without it, much of modern politics would be hard for the general public to understand at all

We should certainly scrutinise and analyse proposed new policies. We should garner and air reactions. We should use our political correspondents to help the public make sense of political events. But again we should create more space in news reports and in interviews for politicians to set out their own thoughts in their own words. Then let the analysis and the cross-examination begin.

Mr Blair has a valid point, I believe, about the frantic search for impact and the exaggeration it can lead to. Drink a deep draft of some British media and you could be forgiven for thinking that we live in a phantasmagoric landscape filled with roving bands of drunken teens and paedophiles, of failing communities and dead-end services.

Now I believe that the BBC is less guilty of this kind of exaggeration than almost any other part of British media – but being less guilty doesn’t mean that we’re always entirely innocent. The problem is most common not in the specialisms – economics, say, or world affairs or indeed most areas of domestic public policy – where I think generally they do bring proportionality and context to bear. The greatest danger is in hard news.

A child abduction is a nightmarish event for a family and of completely legitimate public interest. A child murder under any circumstances is a unique and terrible tragedy. But we shouldn’t allow our coverage of one or even an unconnected series of individual events to give the public impression that these things are an everyday occurrence or that the trend is up when in fact it is down.

It’s sometimes said that ‘all news is relative’, in other words that a less significant story may make the front page or the top of the bulletin on a slow day rather than on a busy one. But while that is always going to be true to a degree, I believe that it’s the BBC’s job to de-relativize news as far as possible. We should not imply in the interests of impact or anything else that a given story is more significant than it actually is. Indeed sometimes it should be our role to take a story which others are ramping up and deflate it.

This is not in any sense a call for ‘good news’. It’s a call for accuracy and proportionality as we report the problems of the world.

But there are also steps we should take to make our own dealings with politicians and other public figures more open to scrutiny. When A refuses to debate with B or sets other conditions before an interview or debate, there’s often a case for letting the public know – for example, via the Editors’ Blog.

And we should try harder to expose what I want to call serious spin, in other words political or corporate press relations which don’t just try to put a positive but still essentially reasonable and truthful gloss on events, but are actively deceptive: for instance, by running two contradictory narratives, one on the record and one off. Spin does, I believe, eat relentlessly away at public trust. In the future we should use all proper journalistic means to expose it.

Conclusion

Public trust is the life-blood of the BBC. Without it, it has no value as an institution. That is why we have taken our own problems with trust so seriously in recent months.

But this afternoon I’ve argued that the BBC may also have a special role to play in addressing the wider question of public trust. As you’ve heard, in my view it is not a crisis, but it is a real problem with real consequences. It arises less from doubts about the motives of people in public life, more from an anxiety about truth-telling and the gulf that exists between this country’s technocratic elite and much of its population.

I’ve set out some of the steps I want the BBC itself to take. Not because I believe that on their own they can solve the problem, but because I believe that somebody ought to make a practical start. I don’t think there is anything more important that I can do in my time as editor-in-chief of this organisation.

One year after the start of a new ten-year Charter, the debate about the future of the BBC and public service broadcasting is up and running once again. For me, the potential for the BBC to make a significant difference to the question of public trust should be an important consideration in that debate.

The BBC’s mission gives us a powerful motive to confront this issue. Our reach and the public’s relatively high trust in us gives us the opportunity to make a real difference. I would submit that this adds up to one of the most powerful reasons for having a BBC, both now and in the future. Because if we don’t make the first move and act, who will? Thank you.

Comments

I think BBC needs to take into account that not only British people pay tv license.So when it comes in making new programs they should think of other nationalities living in London.

  • 2.
  • At 07:14 PM on 15 Jan 2008,
  • john russell wrote:

Jeez.This script is a real insight into how tough the Beeb's task is, much as we might moan about them, me as much as anyone. I'd particularly endorse what MT says about the vital importance of keeping up the rigour and toughness of Humphries and co in questioning our, now how shall I put this, politicians. Andrew Neil's persistence in the face of a disgusting and disrespectful performance by Immigration Minister Liam Byrne on 'The Daily Politics,' was really exhilarating, and will live long in the memory.

  • 3.
  • At 07:28 PM on 15 Jan 2008,
  • An 800lb Gorilla In The Room wrote:

All very interesting, and at the end of the day quite irrelevant, really.

Trust would be where you use a "multi-platform" video system - or at least tell people using your site that they're helping cut your bandwidth costs by dint that the software they have to use to view those videos sends the same stream to others asking for it - using their bandwidth, not yours.

Neat trick there, and much more lucrative than the naming of a cat.

Public trust in the BBC got dented because the minor things got blown out of proportion by the people who wanted the BBC to be a little more ... pliable ... to their own ends.

The BBC is running from shadows, and if trust was eroded it's because you're all more worried about what people think about the BBC than you are about the things the BBC does - like honest balanced reporting of the news.

You really think the BBC, now, would run with anything like the mess behind Hutton? Cash for Honours? If Blair was "Bush's poodle", the BBC is everyone's Chihuahua of late.

If there's a trust issue, it's this: The BBC has become so scared of controversy that it cannot even be relied upon to report the sun will rise tomorrow without qualifying it with "Maybe".

People did trust you, that's why you had to be brought down by various special interests.

So how about it, Mr Director General? Will the BBC ever remember that it's not supposed to be beholden to anything but the truth, will it ever stop spending more of its efforts reporting the news rather than wringing its hands, and will it ever stop blowing minuscule anthills about it's own foibles into virtual mountains Edmund Hillary would have balked at?

Unlike those others, I won't say "Bet you won't publish this" to see if it goads you into doing so. I'm more likely to say "Bet you won't respond to it!" ... The woes of being an 800lb Gorilla in the room.

  • 4.
  • At 07:28 PM on 15 Jan 2008,
  • J Freeman wrote:

I certainly think photographers would have more trust in the BBC if the corporation didn't rip the rights from people contributing photographs to the web and TV programmes. This is just one small part of why people trust the BBC less and less but one which contributes enormously to the overall impression of the organisation.

  • 5.
  • At 07:40 PM on 15 Jan 2008,
  • Neil Wright wrote:

My own trust in politcians waned during the post thatcher government, so much so that I reversed a life long trend of voting tory in 1997. Since then my trust in government has ceased altogether. I now think that all politicians have their own agenda are driven by greed and self interest. This government has led by example to the point that public institutions and businesses, including the BBC, has sneered at the general public and taken them for idiots, usually because we don't make a fuss.

Why isn't the public demanding action from past promises e.g. TOUGH ON CRIME, £3bn in extra tax for the NHS,(dare I say it (a naughty word)) Immigration?

When will the people who decide policy in government and institutions, be held accountable? Who will be prepared to tell the truth and want to make this a better country for it's citizens?

  • 6.
  • At 07:45 PM on 15 Jan 2008,
  • paul wrote:

I don't think you can even begin to understand how unreliable the BBC is - its bias is so ingrained and intrinsic to its culture that it doesn't have the capacity to judge itself.

While the BBC may be considered 'trustworthy' in its information collection processes, and it may present only those facts that it considers reliable, never the less its entire world view means that it is collecting the wrong information, it is collating it in an unbalanced way and is then presenting the consolidated information, carrying its loaded messages, with all the panache that money and technology can add as if it is the absolute truth.

With the advent of the internet, people have access to raw information to make their own assesments (when they have the time), and all too often when this is done ones own analysis shows how wrong the BBC's message is again and again and again.

The BBC cannot build 'trust' because it has its own agenda that ensures that it can never be properly trusted. While this continues to be the case, I may use BBC resources to gather information, but I would never assume that the information presented is balanced or complete - firstly because of the BBC own internal agenda, and secondly because journalists are still very precious about their positions and delight in ensuring that they do not allow the public to form their own (possibly different) view of any situation.

  • 7.
  • At 08:01 PM on 15 Jan 2008,
  • Chris wrote:

I'm not entirely convinced by the notion that trust needs to be earned again and again. It merely needs not to be thrown away. The long-term study cited indicates that the public will tend to continue to trust or distrust institutions out of habit, unless they're given a compelling reason to change...almost invariably from trusting to distrusting.

What troubles me the most about politicians is the complete lack of interest in honesty as a guiding principle. I've often seen politicians debating - on TV and in person - and everyone from backbenchers to Cabinet ministers have seen fit to assert palpable falsehoods in the interests of winning the debate. If they are willing to lie consciously and deliberately to be "competitive", why should we assume they are telling the truth any other time they're in the public eye?

  • 8.
  • At 08:49 PM on 15 Jan 2008,
  • Martin wrote:

Mark

Whilst good, robust reporting is essential the sneering, cynical, doubt casting which infuses much BBC output has played an enormous art in killing trust in public officials.

Just how many times in the past 30 days has Robert Preston blogged only about the Northern Rock issue?

Now some madder people claim he's to blame for the run on the bank which is clearly not the case but it's almost impossible to find another issue in his blog over the past 30 days. Were there really no other business stories since mid December?

How about the headline "Hain 'could face police inquiry'" - yes he could but it's by no means certain that he will. Do you not think that headline invites people to distrust politicians?

Let's step away from politics and let's look closer to home. One of your own employees recently had to endure the sudden death of his fiancee AND media intrusion into his grief and private life.

The BBC's response was to join the media pack and run over excited run stories including 'TV star arrested over death' which was top of the entertainment page for far longer than the eventual 'TV's Speight not a murder suspect'.

He must be dead chuffed with how his employers have handled this.

The worst thing is that almost every article over that non-event starts with the allegations and only ends with the denials by which time many people - and this is surely the aim - will have made up their mind.

It's a common BBC style to say 'X has been accused of...' rather than 'X has denied...'.

Is it deliberate? It certainly feels like it.

What about the use of emotive headlines such as "'No more Lottery raids' for 2012".

Reading the article only the opposition used the word 'raid' - political point scoring which the BBC has given air to.

Or we could look at the emotive "'No U-turn' in cancer woman row" headline.

Why would there be a 'u-turn' for enforcing the law? Where in that story is the context explaining Government estimates on the cost to the NHS of treating 'health care tourists'?

You have an awful lot to correct mark, you could start with reporting the news with just the facts and find room elsewhere in the schedule for the opinion and speculation.

  • 9.
  • At 09:02 PM on 15 Jan 2008,
  • E. Coyle wrote:

The BBC has conceded that it is now institutionally bias and has surrendered political objectivity. The organisation has a libral left-wing leaning and has a workforce who are sympathetic towards Muslims and bias against Christianity (the cornerstone of Western Civilization and producer of the freedom under the rule of law that goes with it)and sympathetic towards the segregationist dogma of 'multiculturalism. As this mentality is a pre-requisite for employment with the BBC, any talk of rebuliding trust is meaningless until it reviews it's employment procedures.

  • 10.
  • At 09:03 PM on 15 Jan 2008,
  • Jake Metcalfe wrote:

A truly fascinating piece highlighting a number of really vital issues. Indeed, it is important for journalists to remain inquisitive and questioning about politics, but as is stated here it is even more vital that they, and we, listen to what politicians are actually saying first. I applaud Mark for making this point in a country where even the politicians seem more interested in contradicting and arguing with one another than seriously debating what is actually best for the country.

  • 11.
  • At 09:19 PM on 15 Jan 2008,
  • Andrew Cook wrote:

Yes its a major issue, in ALL areas of life - there is so much information that the challenge of the 21st century is to find a reliable source of information which is biased (because almost every account of almost everything is biased in some way) only enough so that you can identify and filter the bias. Its not just the internet which is full of misinformation. And this drowning in information is manipulated by many people who issue spurious "facts" form a position of trust. The fact is that we cannot end up trusting everyone (because that would be very confusing), and we cannot trust no-one, so we have to choose.

  • 12.
  • At 09:43 PM on 15 Jan 2008,
  • John white wrote:

Over the last twelve months the BBC has shown a worrying inconsistency when it comes to reporting education, health or other areas where power has been devolved from Westminster to Edinburgh or Cardiff. For example if the Prime Minister talks about education policy he is no longer in the positon to take decisions for Scotland even if his own consituents are Scottish. At the moment I cannot trust the BBC to accurately reflect these realities in news reports be they on television or radio. Far too many Ministers of State are interviewed without the limitations of their power being clearly identified. In other European countries with a federal system of government there would be an outrage if the main broadcaster failed to accurately report on matters political. It saddens me to say that this is a daily occurence on the BEEB and is a reflection on the leadership of the organisation. At the moment I do not trust the BBC to present the full picture and this is a sad state of affairs.

  • 13.
  • At 09:56 PM on 15 Jan 2008,
  • Mike Bennett wrote:

Hi Mark – a very encouraging blog – I think you pose many real questions that don’t normally escape into the open!

I think your key graph is the one showing that less than 20% of people think that the government and journalists tell the truth. An example of why this happens is the run-up to the second Iraqi invasion. We now know that the ignored million marchers got it right and that the government and the media mainly got it wrong. And the tricky thing is that, if you want or have a reputation for truth, you only have to be caught out in a lie once, and your reputation is tarnished.

Your question – “Does an exaggerated suspicion of government and official Britain lead to serious real world consequences?” I think would be better as “Are people justified in believing that politicians and journalists don’t tell the truth?”

I like the aim to better connect people and Government. And better and more critically examined training for journalists. And the pan-BBC examination of issues. And your aim to “de-relativize” the news. And exposing spin is good.

And yet, I also agree with you - this won’t solve the problem. The step I believe you could take and that would both take us all to where we need to go and be very exciting – is that the BBC journalists and documentaries should…. um… and I say this with trepidation because you may well feel this already happens…

Tell The Truth

But really telling the truth in the way I’m thinking of is much more far-reaching than may immediately be obvious. It’s not just the facts – more like a critical examination of the facts and their context – at a level that journalists and politicians rarely get to currently. 100% truth.

An example – the figure of 655,000 Iraqi civilian dead was reported in The Lancet and since then has been barely mentioned in the mainstream media. President Bush dismissed it as having a faulty methodology. It’s hard to establish the truth and it’s a figure which should have repercussions. So, we need to know. What about commissioning some serious journalism to really look at this, do a programme about it and then using that as the figure in newscasts where relevant? So then the politicians are brought up against reality. Unless these kinds of half-truths are tackled, politicians (and journalists) will continue bump along with under 20% believing them.

There are many areas that are causing greater and greater problems and are mentioned in the media – but seldom with any context or depth. Telling the Truth would demand real context – what is the real cause of this – what needs to be done and here’s an interview with people responsible. What about a “Future of the Planet” series / month / year where the BBC goes into them in depth. Produces authoritative documentaries. Al Gore with BBC style! Sell them round the world. Covering (for starters) Climate Change, Over-Fishing, Biodiversity loss, Deforestation, Water Deficits, Marine Pollution, Poverty, Population, Combating Terrorism, Conflict Prevention, Universal Education, Natural Disaster Prevention, Narrowing the gap between rich and poor, Global Financial Architecture, Big Pharma, the Arms Trade, the WTO and trade rules.

We (by which I mean Humanity) need to understand the real dynamics operating in these areas. They frustrate our efforts to resolve them because we’re not tackling the real problem – we’re just tackling bits around the edges.

The BBC could show us what’s really going on. And then people would really trust you.

I’d be interested to know what you think.

Cheers Mike

  • 14.
  • At 10:10 PM on 15 Jan 2008,
  • ALEX CLARKE wrote:

It is probably strange to everyone else but you that you genuinely believe that trust, and the moral foundations which on which its rests, can be rationalised through a series of charts and polls. Probably it is also strange to you but to few other people that the BBC is facing a growing groundswell of anger and resentment from people like myself who see the corporation as a corrupt, unaccountable, tax-fed bureacracy led by morally null apparatchiks such as yourself whose prime concern seems to be justifying their own jobs.

This is a very interesting, and very useful response to the burning issue of trust that has led to TV's output being held in such disrepute over the last year. As someone who is involved in teaching television production to the hopeful next generation of broadcasters, this kind of analysis of the role the BBC should play in recovering and developing public trust is excellent. Higher Education should work closely with the BBC to educate those wishing to join the industry and ensure values of taste, decency and ethics permeate our curriculum, and the graduates we produce. We need to work together to ensure the role television plays in our Nation's future is wholly positive and something to be proud of.

  • 16.
  • At 10:33 PM on 15 Jan 2008,
  • Michael La Costa wrote:

Incisive, germane, and illuminating. But when all is said and done, isn't the nub of the matter simply a question of transparency? If only people could see how those in positions of trust actually decide. And, if only those people could also make their own positive contribution to the decision-making process, and thus play a meaningful part in the outcome. Isn't this the best foundation on which to build trust? Interaction, communication, call it what you will, par excellence.

There is a(n innovative) way to achieve this (as well as enfranchise the BBC) but whilst the BBC is so much better at broadcasting than listening, such radical, unique and beneficial ideas are likely to be stillborn; the task of building trust will be no less diminished. Friends, Romans, BBC(wo)men, lend me your ears!

  • 17.
  • At 10:37 PM on 15 Jan 2008,
  • Emily wrote:

Sorry to say, but I found this piece rather depressing. An apology and misplaced praise for Blair (detailed diagnosis!!), who was personally responsible for forcing the BBC to become partisan and dumbed down with his threats over the license fee..

The analysis about why people don't trust politicians is deeply flawed, and attempts a positive spin on something that is thoroughly depressing - and worse still - tries to equate skepticism with conspiracy theorists. People don't trust politicians because of the WMD claims, the countless examples of dodgy loans, and the you-scratch-my-back mentality that is now rife at Westminster. It has nothing to do with believing in UFOs and it is a bizarre correlation to introduce.

Blair, the arch propagandist, and his media pals do not understand the purpose of the media. It is to report, not to toady. It is to analyse fairly, not to deliver spin to achieve the aim's of politicians. It is to broadcast in an unbiased fashion - as far as it is humanly possible. Thompson claims he believes in these principles, yet then appears to make excuses for the countless half-truths that are spun out of Westminster and the behaviour of MPs.

The media is today far too cosy with politicians and has utterly lost its sense of purpose. Today, you get far better news and insight from overseas outlets and from bloggers than you do from our increasingly outdated media organisations that now are embarrassingly dumbed down, and often appallingly ignorant.

The terrible topline analysis about the economy over the last decade is a case in point - and which has allowed this government to rack up £1.3 trillion of liabilities in a supposed boom period (meaning we're really screwed in a downturn). Because of the media's ignorance and negligence as watchdog, this country and its public sector will suffer severely because of the reckless spending spree that has happened under this government, now that there is no money left in the pot.

It is not the BBC's job to restore public trust in government - that is the job of politicians who really do need to clean up their act and who have never been able to get away with so much. The BBC's job is to produce good programming and real analysis and not to excuse the Two Rule mentality for plebs and MPs that is prevalent at the HoP. The BBC's journos should be spin-proof but sadly, they no longer appear to be (and all too often are even romantically involved with politicos). The saddest and strangest thing of all is that this has happened after the BBC was actually right over Kelly and Iraq.

Factual point: "Overall approval of the BBC at the end of 2007 was higher than it was at the start."
The chart says 5.87 for Jan 07 and 5.83 for Dec 07 - so I'm not sure how that inference can be made.

Good talk, important topic.

Two things that create trust are humility and listening. These are challenges for a broadcaster in the unique position of the BBC, but not insuperable.

The whole opening up of interactivity, the web (especially Backstage) and feedback mechanisms turn the BBC into a listening broadcaster.

My suggestion for token humble behaviour is this: as a matter of policy, ALWAYS report news which is actually about the BBC at the end of a bulletin, as a PS. It feels odd when you report internal matters as national news. It may feel like it to you, but to us it seems self-important.

  • 19.
  • At 10:56 PM on 15 Jan 2008,
  • Suzy Campbell wrote:

Dear Mr Thompson,

As a freelance offline editor and documentary producer for over 20 yrs I vainly resisted an increasing pressure to extract 'false entertainment' from observational footage. When producers arrive at independent production companies they are routinely handed a so called 'programme production bible' that sets out a timetable for the conflicts they are expected to generate. In my experience these false conflicts are commonly created by manipulating and lying to contributors.

I strongly urge the BBC to carry out some research by making an independent approach to a sample of producers, assistant producers and editors working 'in house' and for the leading indies and conduct confidential interviews with them. I should add however that I believe only a certain amount of blame exists at the filmmaker level. The freelance employment model virtually guarantees editors and producers are in no position to argue with their employer about ethics and morality, (if they wish to stay in employment). My career certainly suffered as a result of objecting to the gross manipulation of contributors, including children, in an unethical manner. Compulsion of this nature is endemic throughout the industry both inside the BBC and externally. You will also discover that the average age of a freelance producer is late twenties; older more robust experienced professionals are leaving television in droves not just because standing up for their morals brings them into conflict but because of the appalling ageist and exploitative working conditions that now exist.

Logic tells us the unique selling point of every broadcaster can not be popularity. Ironically these difficult issues provide you and the BBC trustees with an ideal opportunity to tangibly demonstrate your capacity to act ethically, however uncomfortable and difficult that may be and re-think the corporations key values and employment policies.

Yours sincerely
Suzy Campbell

  • 20.
  • At 11:01 PM on 15 Jan 2008,
  • Hugh Coulter wrote:

So that's OK then........the BBC is the least distrusted institution (even though it's not trusted very much).
So Mark Thompson is going to train BBC programme makers to avoid dishonest or fraudulent business practices.........and not do much else.
For me, though, trust in the BBC as a public sector broadcaster has to earned through the production of balanced, objective and rigorous current affairs programmes,,,,,,,,and here the BBC sometimes falls short of the mark.
Why, for example, did the Today programme recently feature a 2 or 3 minute report on Bush's visit to Saudi, concluding with two unidentified talking heads expressing cynicysm (did they represent the population at large / the views of the Saudi administration / the analyses of respected experts......we will never know).
Why do we learns so much about the world view and ethical / political prejudices of John Humphreys, rather than learning about the interviewees and being able to reach our own conclusions?
Repairing and rebuilding an organisation that can consistently deliver balanced, informative current affairs is Mark's real challenge


Most of this is twaddle. The reason that people trust the BBC more than most other institutions from the choices allowed is that the BBC has the microphones, cameras and transmitters and 50%+ share of broadcast media. It also decides who to invite to talk on them and who should debate with who. It also decides which stories to cover and in what order. It commissions dramas, many of which are from one political leaning - not all comedians and playwrights are left wing. (It seems that the left wing comedians are on the BBC and the right wing comedians are playing clubs up and down the country).

It is extremely rare for people and organisations in public life to criticise the BBC, as their livelihoods depend on not doing so. That includes journalists and politicians who one day will be looking for a job or a platform, both of which are provided by the BBC. People can only give answers based on what they see and hear. Therefore, the surveys you quote give false results and I am afraid Mark Thompson is deluded.

I dare say that if “Big British Companies” were given the microphones and transmitters (no need to change the BBC logo), they would suddenly find that they are free from serious public scrutiny as well and their “trust index” would climb too.

As far as politicians are concerned I remember very well the skewed reporting and over-the-top grilling from Lady Thatcher’s second term and throughout John Major’s term. This miraculously stopped when Tony Blair’s government came to power. Only within the past year or so has some balance been restored and even an apparent attempt at impartiality.

As far as the wider picture is concerned, it is pretty obvious that news is exceptional. Therefore, the more good there is, the more bad is reported. Because our politicians generally do not lie, they are seen as liars. Because aeroplane accidents are extremely rare and car accidents relatively common, people are more scared of flying than driving. This upside down view of the world is a systematic problem common to all journalism. I would suggest that the root of this lies more with the commercial sector who are looking for a big story. I would also suggest that the BBC tries reporting more good news. This would be a public service and would provide the context that it seeks as well as a distinct style (compared to other media).

The idea that the BBC should carry the torch of trust for all of public life is quite scary. It is not your job to instil trust in our politicians or anyone else. The fact that you have done more than any other institution to erode trust means that you are the last people that should take this on. The best things you can do are:

i) have a more balanced output, not just from a liberal/left viewpoint
ii) allow politicians more air time than interviewers
iii) Allow politicians more unfettered debates without any presence of a chairman/interviewer
iv) Instead of inviting guests to debate, go out and cover debates organised by others
v) Report the news and stop commenting on it
vi) Have less twaddle

As I understand it, people do not only form their opinions based on examples -- they also make judgements based on a mental picture of the motivations involved. I suspect the public is much better at understanding the logic of motivations ("what is in somebody's interest") than they can enunciate in a survey. This may go some way to explaining why distrust in politicians and trust in the BBC remain relatively constant over time, regardless of the situation.

For example, there is always a general view that "you can't trust what politicians say", but if you ask why in a survey, you'll usually get back a list of examples such as WMD, even though their distrust certainly extended before that. However, a good underlying reason for mistrusting politicians' speeches might be that it is a politician's day-to-day job to put himself and his arguments in the best possible light. Therefore there is a logical motivation for a politician to spin the facts, so the mental model says that politicians will always spin. Similarly a possible underlying reason for trusting the BBC would be that it gets no direct benefit from dishonesty.

These "mental model" factors are likely to be a much stronger and more consistent influence on public opinion than examples, which are transient by nature. (Unless the example is enough to change the model -- people now have a better understanding of the time pressures on Blue Peter producers and the compromises they might make than they once did!)

If this is true (and this comment is just an opinion piece), then it is most important for the BBC to adjust its systems and structures so that honesty is obviously the best policy -- or at least so that dishonesty has no clear benefit. The public will then reason that the BBC probably should be trusted.

Its independence from commercial interests is, of course, the main advantage the BBC has here. The pitfalls to watch for are laziness (or time pressure), rather than financial gain.

do you really write these yourself or is it your PA?

I also beleive that the BBC should not sell television centre, or if this has to be the case find another base for operations.

The speech was generally, as the first poster said "a great insight".

  • 24.
  • At 01:20 AM on 16 Jan 2008,
  • Orville wrote:

This is an excellent, very detailed speech, with great statistics. It does leave out a few things, though.
First, it's not just the BBC that has been accused of "dumbing down". The same applies to media networks throughout the world. (Here in the US, celebrity and crime news fills much of the broadcasts and cablecasts (for lack of a better word).) Even if the BBC is "dumbed down", here across the Atlantic, those who look on the BBC favorably view it as a step above much of the US media.
A second point he missed is WHY many people trust the BBC. Here, Mr. Thompson shows a slight (if reasonable) bias, focusing mostly on BBC's news division as the source of trust and mistrust. However, while the BBC is widely known for news, its programs run the gamut from Childrens' to Cooking, to Religious, to Drama to Comedy. My first favorable opinions from the BBC were from childhood encounters with Paddington Bear, Doctor Who, and All Creatures Great and Small (My parents liked it). Since then, my favorable opinions of the BBC have increased, even before I began following BBC News.

  • 25.
  • At 02:31 AM on 16 Jan 2008,
  • Jim Levack wrote:

Sorry. Well I'm not really. I stopped watching any tv five months ago. I saw the end of a movie and turned hopefully and expectantly to NEWS. Celebrity twaddle was the only way to describe the content. I thought "I don't care about these people, they're just things to me". So? Now I have BBC ticker that I can choose if I want to follow up content. BBCRadios 7/4/3 give me most of what I want---info, humour, relaxation, thoughtprovokestuff. I just wish World Service wasn't suffering so from cutbacks. Not only do I not want inveterate self-publicising supposed celebrities invading my life-space, I cannot stand to see their lip-smacking countenances girning their certainties of the second-rate at me. COMEON, there are too many of them. Doing something slightly interesting in one sphere gives the "celeb" carte-blanche. They then are allowed to perpetrate their banal offerings in every vein of broadcasting. Until they are erased from news (oh, had a sprog---well, well, well, how did you do that, very unusual, never heard of that before) and all the other quagmires of blather we are expected to marvel at (they would even expound lengthily and magnificently on their coprophiliac endeavours if we let them, the meretricious asses) or can just be zapped from all tv output, then neither t nor v is worth a jot or a lot. I don't like birtspeak either. T Wells signs off.

  • 26.
  • At 08:19 AM on 16 Jan 2008,
  • Alex R wrote:

Mr Thompson,

The BBC has been in the forefront of the climate change campaign. Your Breakfast News Programme even followed a family for a year and persuaded them to not take their foreign holiday to Spain so that they might further reduce their carbon footprint. And yet, now we learn that you have made at least 26 foreign trips since you took charge of the BBC in 2004. So of these were undoubtedly work related, but some were simply junkets – like your trip to the Augusta Masters in Georgia, USA.

It is this rank hypocrisy that destroys trust in the BBC.

  • 27.
  • At 08:22 AM on 16 Jan 2008,
  • Ynda wrote:

The BBC will not be trusted (and I am not worried about the naming of the Blue Peter cat) until the BBC

a) Reports the news to "evidential quality": preserves text or clearly shows amendments to web pages; keeps all tapes without editing and edits wisely for broadcasting; keeps notes about what is being recorded (so called "metadata").

b) Investigates news stories rather than just accepts the politicians stories. Gilligan and Dyke had the right idea and they were sacked!

c) Remove all political interference. How? I'm not too sure how you'd go about this but some form of transparency is required: like all communication between BBC and government to be publicly available for instance.

  • 28.
  • At 08:57 AM on 16 Jan 2008,
  • Chris Bowie wrote:

Three things would go a long way to restoring my trust in the Beeb:-

1) Publish the Balen report

2) Stop recuruiting in your own image

3) Start presenting the other side of the climate change argument

I have no problem with bias when I have a choice of whether to fund it or not. But as I cannot choose to stop paying the BBC poll tax then I expect utter impartiality. At the moment I am not getting value for money.

  • 29.
  • At 09:51 AM on 16 Jan 2008,
  • Jon Anderson wrote:

The public do not trust the State for the simple reason that it’s run by politicians who lie, dissemble and misrepresent, while making every effort to insulate themselves from the effects of their stupidity and negligence. It’s not the BBC’s job to help restore confidence in the State when such confidence is unwarranted, but what it does need to do is hold politicians to account. In particular, when ministers use interviews to re-state platitudes or waste time by quoting meaningless statistics (Gordon Brown’s favourite), interviewers must be bold enough to intervene and insist on a properly relevant answer to the question. You would also do well to consider how, given the careless abandon with which the State is being made over to the EU, you plan to apply your ambitions to this much bigger, undemocratic, seriously corrupt and virtually unaccountable organisation.

  • 30.
  • At 10:31 AM on 16 Jan 2008,
  • Don wrote:

I am very concerned by your plans to have a political portal availiable to schools. It is a fine idea in principle, but only if you believe that the BBC truly is bias free.

I know what I think about that..

You already shove a leftist multiculturalist agenda down our kids' throats with CBBC and Ceebebies (how many Blue Peter presenters are there that are not homosexual or from ethnic minorities? Not many. Certainly nowhere near representative of society.

You have your own agenda and simply cannot be trusted. Your output is bad enough when directed at adults.

Leave our children alone.

  • 31.
  • At 11:43 AM on 16 Jan 2008,
  • James wrote:

That was an interesting piece Mr Thompson and a lot of it is relevant. I am concerned though by the apparently concerted efforts of various senior BBC staff (yourself, Helen Boaden and others) to effectively corral the issue of trust into areas your are (relatively) comfortable in dealing with. For instance a) competition/phone-in ethics and b) how you interact with and interview politicians.

In my view, and in the view of millions of UK citizens who also fund the BBC, this diagnosis conveniently ignores the issue of bias. Mainly cultural but also political.

In short, the editorial staff of the BBC suffer from group think, which is a result of a lack of diversty in the staff. This results in endemic bias which in turn results in a loss of public trust.

To wilfully ignore this issue merely deepens this mistrust, rather than dispel it.

  • 32.
  • At 03:17 PM on 16 Jan 2008,
  • Stuart Brown wrote:

I'd have to second James' point above. The issue of trust does not depend on whether the Queen stormed out or into a room. Trust is built up slowly over time primarily by high quality factual output.

The tabloidisation of Panorama, the reduction of news staff and budgets, the play-it-safe mentality that has persisted since the Hutton report: these have all eroded trust in the BBC, at least by my perception.

One does not have to be confrontational to challenge government. It does, however, require one to determine the facts for a particular case and press ministers or spokespeople when or if they obfuscate.

Too often debates become a jeering claim and counterclaim, which casts light on the truth not at all.

  • 33.
  • At 05:25 PM on 16 Jan 2008,
  • merle wrote:

Good piece. I was astonished to read that one in three Britons believes in ET. I dare say an equal number believes in Santa and the angels, too. The point is, what do individual mythological predilictions have to do with the BBC's delivery of hard news? I don't believe journalists should have to trim back their investigative function in order 'to help' this 'anxious' and conspiracy-prone group. I have wondered for ages why the BBC feels the need to maintain a 'conspiracy' corner, complete with tutorial, on your UK website. Now all is explained!
You rightly refer to the complex interplay between scepticism and credulity. But - in wanting to win back trust - the BBC should resist conflating the two. Not easy, as American film producer John Albanese has pointed out: 'The commonly preceived notion that Richard Nixon and his staff were actively covering up complicity in the Watergate break-in did not constitute a conspiracy theory. It was just good old-fashioned journalism, based on the available evidence and whistle-blowers... It is a relatively easy shortcut for the media. Summarily dismiss ... evidence and contradictions. Simply call it all conspiracy theories.' (At the Tribeca, New York premiere of his documentary 'Everybody's Gotta Learn Sometime').

  • 34.
  • At 11:05 PM on 16 Jan 2008,
  • Douglas wrote:

James and Stuart Brown are right. The surveys and comments of BBC staff shows a clear political/cultural bias. The problem is I can't think of any way to fairly hire people with more conservative (small c) philosophy. But I will continue to dislike the BBC's political/cultural groupthink.

The other problem is 24 hour news where stories are rushed onto the screens with little or no research/analysis. For example the number of times the current government re-announces the same policy is rarely if ever commented on in the main news bulletins. Yes give the government their rightly deserved air time but the only way to stop the government re-announcing old policy as new is to highlight it every time. This will then dissuade them from this disingenuous tactic. The BBC needs to step back from the rush to publish like other news outlets and dig a bit deeper before broadcast. Also don't tuck spin away in a blog put into the main news. It is the only way to stop this practise.

And please don't think that more money is needed to produce better news. It just requires professional investigative journalism. More Newsnight style digging needs to be presented on the main news.

Also The Daily Politics and This Week are the best and must not be fiddled with. Andrew Neil would be widely considered conservative but is equally harsh to all politicians.

  • 35.
  • At 08:20 PM on 17 Jan 2008,
  • Dee Smith wrote:

Trust in government is tied directly to perceived quality of life and happiness. The Danes, rated highest in self-reported happiness among all nations, and yet their tax rates are among the highest in the world. They trust their national and local government to provide necessary social services throughout their lives. They trust their communities and their neighbors and are highly connected socially. This connectedness provides an important social support network that reduces personal and interpersonal stress among a high-density populace.

The Danes and other European nations have had to deal with an influx of immigrants; they have recently instituted strict regulations to curtail immigration. The Danes understand the concept of 'economies of scale'. Their willingness to bear a high tax rate is an understood trade-off for the internalization - direct reinvestment of money back into social programs.

The Danes are also debt free nationally and carry very little personal debt. They have a robust social support network that is heavily encouraged by the government to reduce isolationism among individuals. And, they practice a rather healthy lifestyle compared to the UK and US. They use their vehicles sparingly, opting to use bicycle or walking for daily errands and commutes, and they consume fresh foods rich in antioxidants.

Norwegians also rank highly in perceived happiness and trust and participation in important public and social institutions. Their national income is largely derived from oil and gas exports. A significant portion of that revenue is reinvested for youth and the elderly and a portion is *saved* against future needs. The Norwegians also have a much healthier lifestyle than the US and UK. They, too, have a thrifty populace that does NOT equate material wealth with happiness.

When government is essentially rule by the wealthy class that does not reflect typical demographics, and when people lack trust in government that fails to control internal social costs, regularly overspends, and acts in a largely reactionary capacity when resolving major social problems, then you will have a basic lack of trust in your leadership and public institutions that afford a basis for trust and collective happiness. That deficit extends to individual responsibility (including family and community institution participation) resulting from frank apathy.

The veneer of civility and personal safety is very thin when society eschews altruism and active participation in public institutions that emphasize the glue of conformity to social rules and codes of mature behavior.

  • 36.
  • At 01:20 AM on 18 Jan 2008,
  • Mike(p) wrote:

The article seemed to say the trend has been going on for a long time - people are having less trust in institutions generally.

Unfortunately it doesnt go back far enough. I wonder if it is because the layman knows more and has access to more information, than his predecessors.

More information is not necessarily better, it creates more uncertainty, less black and white, more shades of grey.

Is the increase in diminished trust proportional to the increase in information available (ie new technologies like TV, Internet)?

And would the answer then be better information - transparency restores trust - as our American friends might say.

  • 37.
  • At 02:06 PM on 18 Jan 2008,
  • Rich wrote:

An interesting speech with enough material for a whole site's worth of comments. Skimming through, one passage in particular caught my eye:

"many of the issues which all parties believe this country faces - from climate change to obesity and population health - depend on the public believing new facts and in some cases new advice on what they and their families should do....because it is intrinsically unsatisfactory and unhealthy for a significant proportion of the population to have a distorted view of reality".

By 'a distorted view of reality' I'm guessing you actually mean 'people who disagree with some or all of the 'facts' as presented by the BBC'. I'm no climate sceptic but as far as the Beeb favourite of obesity is concerned I have serious misgivings about the way in which the topic has been presented by the media and government. I have read widely on this subject, and on balance I consider that there is a very compelling case to suggest that not only has the 'obesity epidemic' been largely manufactured for political and economic gain via statistical manipulation, but that much of the evidence of increased health risks and links to various conditions presented as 'clear-cut' by the media and medical establishment is actually anything but.

I won't bore anyone with the details of these arguments here but a look at www.bigfatfacts.com or www.obesitymyths.com, the work of Paul Campos or Sandy Swarcz is suffcient to destroy the false illusion of agreement within the scientific community.

I'm acutely aware that as far as you're concerned that makes me a paid-up member of the flat earth society whose views are at best irrelevant and at worst highly dangerous, no doubt on a par with the detested 'climate change deniers' and smokers' rights lobby. However it is EXACTLY this 'new consensus' and a trend toward suppression or ridicule of any dissent that is turning people away from political and sociological debate in droves.

And when that debate could have serious implications for all of us (in this instance, lobbying for increased legislative control over larger people could result in erosion not only of their rights but a much wider and more fundamental redefinition of the role of the State in individual lifestyle choices) it is imperative that the media ensure the populace remain informed by providing ALL the information.

It is certainly not the job of the BBC to lead public opinion, nor to campaign on behalf of the Government or well-organised pressure groups. And until you as an organisation realise that there will always be many who do not trust your view of the world.

  • 38.
  • At 09:35 AM on 19 Jan 2008,
  • John wrote:

Very interesting and I acknowledge your sincerity in this.

Personally I don't care about a phone in on a kids programme.

My trust in the BBC is compromised by the clear institutional bias. Pro-green, anti-Bush, anti-Israel etc.

I don't think you have ever deliberately lied to me: if you tell me a fact, I will probably believe it.

But what I do distrust is the filtering. Why is greenpeace on my TV everynight but never a counter argument to what they say? Does every smart bomb in Afghanistan really kill civillians, or are some hitting the taleban and you just don't tell me about those?

I do believe what you say, but I now feel I also need other sources as well if I want the whole story.

How to address it? Well for every correspondent you employ who describes the taleban as 'victims of the war on terror' start employing another who sympathises with British troops (eg Mark Urban). We all have our own bias/agenda, the problem at the BBC is that you all have the SAME bias/agenda.

  • 39.
  • At 09:26 PM on 19 Jan 2008,
  • Sam wrote:

All those graphs ..".if you can't convince,,,,confuse "
Unlike Orville No.27., I do not trust BBC news...and I think the idea this DG is proposing about providing schoolkids with the BBC's view of the world is very very dodgy.....
In the last week I have heard three of their journalists interview various of the great and the good and not once did they attempt to question the spin.
The head of the CBI in Scotland made a statement that suited his own political stand and the 'journalist interviewer' let this untruth stand without question....so what good would any complaint to the incestuous BBC do, or its Trust?
The BBC spins it's tale of cutbacks affecting its output yet it sent 5 journalists from the UK to cover the early stages of the American primary's over and above the 5 permanent staff from it's Washington office.
Then there is the deliberate 'no go' areas where they dare not offend certain groups by failing to report on the hard facts of life that do not conform to their 'liberal' viewpoints. People die and yet the BBC news ignores the cause, but there is vast amounts of coverage and analysis of BA or M & S or any of the so called establishment.
The sooner the NET takes over the better.

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