Trust in public institutions – lessons from the BBC

Who is to blame, if anyone, for the apparent decline in levels of trust in institutions? An interesting speech given by the BBC Director-General in January explores the relationship between the media and the public sphere. The speech was given after Tony Blair’s memorable speech blaming the media for low trust in politicians, as well as the scandals that damaged trust in the BBC (the faked Blue Peter phone-in and manipulation of footage of the Queen for example).

Thompson explores whether scepticism about those in public life is a new phenomenon, and asks whether trust is important anyway. He certainly believes so, and for reasons that should concern us too.

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 believes this country faces – from climte 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 feel a more general sense of disillusion and negativity about national life which has its own problematic social consequences.

However, the most interesting parts of the speech for me were Thompson’s reflections on the trust in his own institution, the BBC. Just as charities are generally shown to be more highly trusted than most other institutions (although a recent nfpsynergy poll tells a slightly different story), the BBC enjoys higher levels of trust than other media organisations. But as well as being an asset, that brings challenges, argues Mark. In particular he suggests that higher trusts brings higher expectations:

But this ranking [higher trust than for ‘media in general’] 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.”

You can imagine a similar phrase if researchers were to ask about some scandal in a our sector – “You’re a charity, you’re meant to be different”!

Last updated at 15:08 Mon 18/May/09.
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