By: Jessica Tarlov
Writing for YouGov-Cambridge
Morning in Britain looks the same as ever. People get up, go to work, obsess about football, talk politics and the economy. But fundamental changes lurk beneath the surface.
Britons are now struggling in a trust vortex - they no longer rely on the people that are meant to be accountable, transparent and reliable to tell the truth. They are living in a post-trust era.
YouGov data collected over the last eight years reveals aggregate decline in trust across leading media outlets. In 2003, 82% of over 2,000 adults trusted ITV news journalists and 81% trusted BBC news journalists to tell the truth a "great deal" or a "fair amount". By July 2011 those figures had slipped 35 and 23 percentage points respectively. Similarly, trust levels of journalists at up-market newspapers like The Times and The Daily Telegraph as well as mid-market papers (e.g. The Daily Mail) fell 30 and 20 points over the eight year period.
Politicians have not fared much better. Senior Liberal Democrats were trusted by 36% of those surveyed to tell the truth in 2003 and slipped to 18% by July 2011. High-ranking Labour ministers broke even over the eight-year period, but only 25% of respondents felt that they could trust them to tell the truth in the first place. Leading Conservative politicians moved up two percentage points, but started with a barebones 20% trust mark. Ratings of local MPs were higher as they began with 44% confidence and maintained 36% by the last poll.
The figures paint a bleak picture of public confidence in these institutions. And one can expect them to continue to fall even further as unsavory links between the press and politicians continue to unfold. Simultaneously, fallout from recent rioting across England casts further dark shadows.
What can be done? The defeatist voices are out in force: The system is broken. Citizens are disengaged. Politicians are corrupt. Social media has replaced journalism and therefore our information is beyond repair.
All of these readings of contemporary British society have aspects of truth to them. However, they do not accurately sum up Britain's current state in that they ignore a crucial emotional component to the story: People fundamentally want to trust.
Citizens imbue their representatives with the power to act in their best interest. Similarly, they expect journalists to act with propriety and a sense of duty to objectively report. These groups are engaged in a trust relationship with long-standing and clear-cut parameters.
Public outcry over the expenses scandal, calls for reform, and low approval ratings are all ways in which the electorate express their disdain. But citizens continue to read, tweet, and listen. They are still out there, vocal, and waiting for change.
Many will never recover from the damage and the trust vortex will swallow them whole. But one must consider that when people have totally given up faith, they become indifferent. There are no outcries, no expressions of horror and no rich and energetic public debates. Many Britons may be cynical and distrusting, but they have not yet become indifferent overall.
In this lack of indifference lies a promise of a brighter future. While the last eight years were terrible, in another eight years it will be nearly 2020. Government ties with News International will be the past. The media might return to the tenets of good and fair journalism and recover their losses. For politicians, as long as the public is still listening, they can rebuild their relations.
A post-trust era seems drastically out of place in arguably the longest running representative democracy in the world. This past eight-year cycle can be reversed in the next and 2020 can be the dawn of a new era of trust if the right steps are taken.
(Jessica Tarlov is a PhD candidate at The London School of Economics and Political Science. Her research focuses on political scandal, controversy and electoral behaviour.)
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