x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

In Britain, scandals eroding trust in public institutions

In Britain royalty, parliament, banking, the church, police and press have all suffered serious blows to their reputations lately

 

London // A series of scandals has led prominent British commentators to detect a collapse of trust in many once-trusted public institutions.

Royalty, parliament, banking, the church, police and press have all suffered serious blows to their reputations.

Now, the BBC is embroiled in a crisis after allegations, covered up or ignored for decades, of sexual misconduct by the presenter and charity figurehead Jimmy Savile. "There has been a domino effect," said the Reverend Leo Osborn, 60, who recently concluded his year as president of the Methodist Conference, his church's equivalent of the Archbishop of Canterbury. "One revered institution after another has been affected in a short period of time, leading to a lot of cynicism," told The National.

Expertise and authority were longer respected, he said, and it was necessary to guard against the dangers of people "just making it up as they go along".

The contrast with the past is striking. In strength and adversity, the United Kingdom long prided itself on values supposedly enshrined in public life.

Even when its colonial history came under critical scrutiny, Britain continued to command - or at any rate its citizens believed it to command - worldwide respect. The French, not always ready to look benignly at their cross-Channel neighbours, even have a phrase to reflect belief in British decency: le fair-play Britannique.

For some observers, the process can be traced to controversies concerning the English royal family. The marriage of Charles, heir to the throne, and Diana, Princess of Wales, disintegrated in unprecedented public fashion, each speaking on television about marital issues that would once have been kept private.

Queen Elizabeth attracted criticism for an initially low-key response to the princess's death in a Paris car crash in 1997.

More recently, the economic crisis afflicting Britain and much of Europe has been partly blamed on bankers' avarice.

Politicians, already low in public esteem, became trusted less when members of parliament were revealed to have made extravagant or fraudulent claims for expenses. Some have resigned - most recently Denis MacShane, a former Europe minister, who stood down this month - or have been jailed.

The Roman Catholic church in the UK has been hit by successive revelations of sexual and physical abuse of children by priests, several cases occurring in Britain though instances have also been uncovered in the US, Australia and elsewhere in Europe.

British police forces have been castigated over botched or inadequate investigations, including a failure to act quickly on alleged phone hacking by tabloid newspapers. The conduct of one provincial force, South Yorkshire, accused of diverting blame for the 1989 Hillsborough football stadium disaster from the authorities to Liverpool supporters, is likely to lead to damages claims and criminal prosecutions.

The protracted Leveson inquiry and belated police operations have cast unflattering light on the press. Dozens of journalists, including former editors, face possible jail sentences if convicted on charges of phone hacking, bribery, perjury or perversion of the course of justice.

Last year, before much of this was in the public eye, an opinion poll by Ipsos/MORI found only 14 per cent of the public surveyed felt politicians told the truth.

Nearly nine in 10 adults (88 per cent) said they trusted doctors. But trust in teachers had fallen by seven points in a year to 81 per cent . Only 19 per cent trusted journalists compared with 29 per cent for bankers, 17 per cent for government ministers and, perhaps perversely, 62 per cent for newsreaders.

"Politicians continue to have the lowest level of public trust, well below that of bankers," said Ben Page, chief executive of Ipsos/MORI. "However, we have never trusted politicians much. Despite media controversy about a collapse in trust, the public trust each other as much as they always have, and doctors remain the most trusted profession of all - as they have since we began the study in 1983."

Peter Preston, a former editor of The Guardian newspaper, wrote in The Observer last month that the Savile "debacle" centred broadly on "one short, deluding word … trust. As in trust in the BBC, trust in the media, trust in public life. And such trust, it becomes ever clearer, is a concept of shreds and tatters."

He did not believe the loss of confidence mattered as much as often imagined. But he also wrote: "I remember, two decades back editing a newspaper, being profoundly shocked when we uncovered the truth about MPs' cash for questions. But now? The trail of moral debris seems endless."

At least in the case of royalty, the queen's diamond jubilee and the popularity of her grandson, William, and his wife, Catherine, have restored much respect. Polls show overwhelming support for preserving the monarchy.

Farooq Murad, the Pakistani-born secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said: "The BBC scandal is highly damaging because charities depend heavily on celebrity figures to highlight their causes.

"Loss of confidence in public institutions is a major issue that goes straight back to morality. Economists tell me the financial crisis was not caused by management failures, interest rate issues and so on but most crucially by greed."

However, Mr Farooq said the diversity and success of the 2012 Olympics in London gave hope that communities could come together and rebuild mutual trust. "What is required, rather than focusing on divisiveness, condemning one another in a blame culture, is for us all to look at common shared values and build on them."

 

foreign.desk@thenational.ae