In 1976 All The President’s Men was released, barely two years after investigative journalism had claimed the biggest scalp on the planet, Richard Nixon’s. The film won four Academy Awards, and the American public awarded a gong to the news media: the highest trust rating journalists would ever enjoy. Seventy two per cent of people told Gallup they trusted the media a great deal or a fair amount. The corresponding figure is now 32%.
That, in a nutshell, is how the case is framed. A noble profession won the trust of the public on a hard road through Vietnam, Watergate and Thalidomide – and blew it by taking short cuts through self-regard, sloppiness and other people’s voicemails.
Does the case stack up? Some of it may, but here’s the rub. It rests on the belief that trust is a reliable guide to good journalism, and there’s precious little evidence that’s the case. The relationship between the trustworthiness of the media and the trust people invest in it is a very uncertain one.
At times in the past, the British public have trusted almost recklessly. Before the Second World War, when the BBC connived with the government to keep Winston Churchill and his anti-appeasement views off air, trust in the BBC was stratospherically high, the trustworthiness of the BBC somewhat lower. The dramatic collapse in trust, post-2000, had a lot to do with globalisation and wage stagnation and very little to do with new insights into media behaviour. Those came later.
Now the public hoards trust, and hands out little parcels to friends and “trusted sources” rather than the mainstream media. I worked at the BBC for 25 years and I saw its journalism become more trustworthy in most important respects: more accurate, more accountable, more open. Its reward? Higher trust ratings than any other news organisation in this country, but still a decline.
In this hostile terrain there are new and troubling factors, not least the arrival on the scene of media outfits, often aligned with populist political causes, which see trust as a zero-sum game. Part of their purpose, and part of the populist playbook, is to bleed trust from the institutions that came before. Often, what people worry about in that polarised environment is the erosion of a common baseline of facts. How do we have a democratic debate when we can’t even agree what facts we’re debating? But the worries shouldn’t obscure a genuine problem: what came before, politically and journalistically, was too narrow. The consensus excluded too many people.
To any part of the media that cares about being trusted, I’d say this: forget about a 72% trust rating, you’ll never see it again because the world has changed too much. In fact, forget about trust. The only thing you can control is trustworthiness; focus on that. Focus on integrity, accuracy, transparency, diversity, breadth. Trust will come and go, trustworthiness is forever.