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The Problem of Trust Goes Far Wider Than the BBC

Posted: 13/11/2012 12:56

The BBC has suffered more from the rows that led to the resignation of George Entwistle as director-general than it did from its failure to report Jimmy Savile’s crimes. A YouGov survey for the Sun, conducted after Entwistle’s departure, finds a 13 point reduction in the past fortnight in the proportion of people who trust BBC journalists to tell the truth. For the first time since YouGov started tracking public trust in British institutions, more people distrust BBC journalists (47%) than trust them (44%).

These are plainly awful figures. As Lord Patten, Chairman of the BBC Trust, has said, the BBC must now act decisively to rebuild public trust. However, it would be wrong to fall into either of two traps: the first, which might supply some reassurance, is to suppose that the BBC has a lower reputation than other media organisations; the second, which is more worrying, is to believe that the loss of trust in the BBC is something that has happened only recently. Neither is true.

Let’s take those points in turn. First, here are figures for the proportion of Britons who trust each of a range of media and political groups to tell the truth.

BBC news journalists

44%

ITV news journalists

41%

Journalists on ‘upmarket’ papers (e.g. Times, Telegraph, Guardian)

38%

My local MP  

37%

Leading Labour politicians

23%

Senior civil servants in Whitehall       

21%

Leading Conservative politicians

19%

Journalists on ‘mid-market’ newspapers (e.g. Mail, Express)

18%

Leading Liberal Democrat politicians

16%

Senior officials in the European Union

13%

Journalists on red- top tabloid newspapers (e.g. Sun, Mirror)

10%

So the BBC still comes top. It beats ITV and journalists on upmarket papers narrowly – and party politicians and officials in Whitehall and Brussels by a mile.

However, the BBC’s reputation used to be far stronger. This is how the figures have changed since early March 2003 – that is, just before the Iraq war, and before the first of the major crisis to afflict BBC journalism: its report on David Kelly, weapons of mass destruction and Tony Blair’s honesty, which led in time to the resignation of both the chairman and director general of the BBC. 

 

Trust in 2003

Change since 2003

BBC news journalists

81%

-37

ITV news journalists  

82%

-41

Journalists on ‘upmarket’ papers (e.g. Times, Telegraph, Guardian)

65%

-27

My local MP

44%

-7

Leading Labour politicians

25%

-2

Senior civil servants in Whitehall

26%

-5

Leading Conservative politicians

20%

-1

Journalists on ‘mid-market’ newspapers (e.g., Mail, Express)

36%

-18

Leading Liberal Democrat politicians

36%

-20

Journalists on red-top tabloid newspapers (e.g. Sun, Mirror)

14%

-4

(We didn’t ask about EU officials in 2003; but their figures have been consistently dreadful since we did start to include them in 2010.) 

Those figures show that the BBC is not alone in seeing its figures tumble. There have been big drops in the figures for all kinds of journalist. (True, the figures for journalists on tabloid papers are down by less – but they started extremely low.) In fact, ITV News journalists might feel somewhat aggrieved: their figures have broadly tracked those of BBC journalists over the past ten years, even though ITV News has faced nothing like the intense criticisms that have from time to time damaged the BBC. In both cases, the numbers fell sharply in the middle years of the last decade, stabilised between 2007 and last month – and declined again in the past fortnight. It is as if scandals surrounding a handful of journalists and their managers in one organisation have damaged the reputations of other journalists operating in the same medium, irrespective of their organisation.

The same point applies to print journalism. We measured trust at the height of the phone hacking saga in July last year – after the News of the World closed down and News International was convulsed by daily disclosures of what some of their journalists had done. The trust level for tabloid journalists touched their lowest figure, 6% - but those of journalists on midmarket (16%) and upmarket papers (35%) were also sharply down, even though no evidence was adduced that they had hacked phones or bribed police officers. In all cases, there have been slight recoveries since then.

Even more widely, the past decade has seen a decline in trust across the board. The figures for senior police officers is down 23 points, from 72% to 49%; local police officers are down 13 points, from 82% to 69%, Even family doctors (down from 93% to 82%) and school teachers (88% to 70%) have seen double-digit falls, even though both still occupy the two top places.

Only one group has a higher trust rating than a decade ago. They are ‘people who run large companies’. They have recovered from a terrible 20% to a fractionally less terrible 23%. (We have not included bankers as a separate group; but other research shows that they have plunged in public respect in recent years.) Leading Conservatives are down only a statistically-insignificant single point since 2003 (20% then, 19% now) – but they are down a rather more worrying 10 points since their 29% peak in August 2010, shortly after that year’s general election.

In short, something deeper is going on, that goes beyond the individual scandals involving journalism, war, government, MPs’ expenses, bureaucracy, banking and the police. They seem to have combined to create a growing impression that virtually all those in positions of leadership are cynically in it for themselves, and less concerned with truth and the public good than they used to be – or we used to think.

The real lesson from our surveys over the past ten years is that the task of rebuilding trust goes far, far wider than the BBC alone.

See the Trust tracker results here

See the full survey results and details here

 

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