Mark Thompson, BBC Director-General

Date: 15.01.2008     Last updated: 18.03.2014 at 17.57

The Trouble With Trust: Building Confidence In Institutions
Speech given at QEII Centre, London
Tuesday 15 January 2008

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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 12 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.

[SLIDE A] 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".

[SLIDE B] 73% said they did – a figure, by the way, that had grown to 76% by year's end.

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.

[SLIDE C] 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.

[SLIDE D] Here's their long-running survey examining trust in different professions over the past 25 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.

[SLIDE E] 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 Nineties 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.

[SLIDE F] 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.

[SLIDE G] Only 6% of the public last November strongly agreed with the statement: "I trust the Government to tell the truth". Twenty-five per cent tended to disagree. And no less than 44% said they strongly disagreed with the statement.

[SLIDE H] Do you think that government figures are produced without interference? Fifty-four per cent 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 generalise 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 online 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.

[SLIDE I] 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.

[SLIDE J] 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? There 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,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 the 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.