If public trust is a currency, the BBC will be dipping into its savings for some time to come.
In an age of increasing media diversification (aka splintering), the BBC is still one of the world’s leading news organisations. Its commitment to placing news gatherers in all the right places and attempting to provide a balance of views - internationally if not domestically - is highly regarded.
The controversy surrounding former BBC journalist Martin Bashir, however, creates a new set of problems that will damage public trust - and not only trust in the BBC.
This comes at a time when widely trusted broadcasters are scarce on the ground. Some earlier contenders have dropped away, having fallen under the spell of ultra-left or -right ideologies and lost their sense of the middle ground.
When Martin Bashir’s interview with Princess Diana was broadcast in November 1995, the BBC was lauded for producing a global exclusive. It was the envy of the media world.
Riding this success, Bashir took up lucrative positions with other broadcasters in the UK and the USA. In the end, he parted company with some of them on less-than-happy terms. In at least one case, he was dismissed because he used falsehoods to set up interviews.
Stories about faked documents and misleading claims about public figures related to the Diana interview have been drifting around for years. This week’s release of an independent report by Lord Dyson demonstrates once and for all the culpability not only of Bashir but of senior company executives who provided him with cover after the event.
Those decisions will have potentially serious long-term implications on at least three levels.
First, there will be a price to pay for all electronic media in this country - and the BBC in particular. People will be right to ask whether we have strong and independent enough accountability structures in place - and tough enough penalties for wrongdoers.
If the media wants to keep public figures to account, they will ask, who will keep the media honest? That’s a question governments and other institutions will need to answer.
There are also implications for the battle between traditional and digital media platforms. Netflix et al. don’t (yet) deal with news, so there’s less scope for them to be accused of peddling inaccuracies or falsehoods.
Digital platforms are hugely attractive to young people, whom the BBC and other broadcasters are desperate to attract. Studies show that today’s younger generations are also very sensitive when it comes to trust and ethics issues.
Most important, though, will be the flow-on effect of this scandal on public trust in institutions generally. This trust is based on an anticipation of ethical behaviour and a scrupulous pursuit of the public‘s best interests.
The BBC likes to see itself as the medium of record, the trusted voice of the people. Yet in the Bashir affair, the BBC failed to carry out due diligence. In the pursuit of a scoop, it failed to live up to the demands of its public broadcasting mandate.
As a result, sections of the BBC helped to promote paranoia in a very public woman who was already struggling in that regard.
Trust is precious because it represents freedom to influence others. It’s also a currency under threat today, with a trust deficit developing across most major institutions, in many nations.
The Edelman communications group publishes an annual survey of 33,000 people in 28 nations. It asks the question: how much do citizens trust public institutions? It produces trust ratings for each country and sector of society.
In recent years, it has uncovered what it calls “historically low” levels of trust across most sectors and in many nations. It says, for example, that on average, before the pandemic, just 53 per cent of people globally trusted the institution of government.
Another global study showed that people began to trust their governments more when Covid first appeared. However, by January this year that boosted trust had fallen away, across the globe.
In 2020, Edelman found that three in every five Brits said they were losing faith in democracy as a form of government. That’s astonishing - and blame can’t be laid at the feet of politicians alone.
The media don't fare any better than governments in this studies. Last year, Edelman found that only 35 per cent of people in the UK trust media institutions. This at a time when the nation needed a national voice more than ever.
Knowing what to do about the trust deficit relies on understanding how it came about.
One of the reasons we’re reluctant to trust public institutions is the divisive nature of our wider social discourse. For all the benefits they bring, both traditional media and social media often promote what I call a hot response culture.
In traditional media, people get fired up by 24/7 emotive stories and constant talk about this “emergency” and that “crisis”. Meanwhile, in social media, there’s no room for nuance, so hyper-emotion and over-reaction often become the norm.
All of that creates a defensive culture, where our default response to the world shifts from thoughtful trust to knee-jerk suspicion.
The public’s trust in institutions is also built on a perceived commitment to the common good. The most respected organisations are those that are seen to act in the best interests of the broadest cross-section of society.
Hence the high respect most societies pay to medicos. Despite their often handsome pay-packets, these professionals are thought to behave in altruistic ways. The pandemic certainly heightened that perception - and in most cases, it probably proved to be accurate.
In contrast to this, in the eyes of some people, today’s media cater mainly to the whims of elite minorities or particular political interests. It’s often said, in debates about social cohesion, that the existence of a dominant culture isn’t a problem unless people forget that they have one. This will lead them to insist that their way of seeing or doing things is the only right way.
Arguably, all media groups feature some bias from time to time, because they’re made up of human beings. This becomes a major problem, though, when the same groups refuse to admit the possibility of biases in their culture, which prevents them from correcting their prejudices.
Biases are not always based on attitudes to politics. They can also be seen in us-and-them dynamics within organisations. Certain senior figures in the BBC’s recent past circled the wagons around Bashir because of a bias against what they saw as discordant voices.
The trust deficit also has a generational aspect. The Millennial generation, aged today in their late twenties to early forties, has been a highly nurtured one, relatively speaking.
They’re the most watched and in many ways protected generation in modern times, often for good reason. They’re the first generation to have had CCTV cameras pointed at them at almost every turn, at least in major cities.
As a result, they place a high premium on trust. It’s no accident that this generation has helped drive the search for a new ethic, which focuses on environmental and emerging human rights issues.
Generation Z follows the Millennials. The top end of this cohort makes up today’s university undergraduates and younger teens. Studies reveal them to be a very pragmatic generation, one that seeks reform on many levels.
The fact that Millennials and Gen-Z are also the first media-globalised generations, means that they’re constantly surrounded by news of wall-to-wall leadership scandals and crises. The pace of news delivery can make them feel that they’re never being fully informed on any of those stories, that there’s always something they’re not being told.
So while they’re acutely aware of ethical issues, many of them are given little reason to trust people beyond a close circle of friends.
At the core of the Martin Bashir debacle lie two words. They’re small words that carry huge significance for healthy societies: trust and ethics. There are no good excuses for the behaviour of Mr Bashir or those in management who effectively covered for it. Theirs are not failures of society, but individuals.
Yet there is already a society-wide trend toward mistrust. The trust deficit in the UK is a phenomenon in which the media is a contributor. As a result, it has and will become a victim.
Without the currency of trust, society fails to function and institutions cannot deliver their services effectively. People want to trust the media. Let’s make it easier for them to do so.