A breakdown in trust

For years now there has been a growing rift between politicians and the press, and the public’s suspicion of both «estates» has grown accordingly. This breakdown in democratic dialogue is a serious problem in societies that have been fortunate enough to have it. At the same time, countries where democracy is still developing will not reach their full potential if they do not see the blossoming of a free and lively press. These thoughts were at the heart of a discussion organized by the British Council in London last week, on «Communication Breakdown: Politicians, Political Reporting and Public Trust.» The event brought together politicians, academics and journalists from Britain and countries of Southeastern Europe. All suffer the same problems to one or other degree – no one claims to know how to turn the tide. The collapse in trust is not a problem only for Britain, Greece or other countries in our region. All over the world, politicians and journalists are last in polls measuring the public’s trust. Of course, no one can imagine a world without politicians – because, in the end, they are accountable to their people and to history – or journalists, because when they do their job, they achieve the better functioning of the state, the government and society as a whole, to the benefit of all citizens. What is needed now is to isolate the causes of the problem and to propose how politicians and journalists can win back the public’s trust. Britain presents a particularly interesting study. Tony Blair’s Labor Party, fighting to gain power, developed a particularly close relationship with the media. In government, «New» Labor kept its eye on manipulating the media or following its moods, to the point that it sometimes appeared to change policy because of the headlines. When this relationship soured, Blair was vocal in expressing his hurt and anger. But beyond that, the public’s view of both politicians and press amplified the sense of a breakdown in trust. In Greece we see very clearly how a sense of incompetence or evidence of sleaze is highly contagious when politicians and journalists are involved: The public’s disillusion spreads across the political spectrum, and from politicians to those who are supposed to hold them to account. What is to be done? Britain has its Press Complaints Commission, an independent body formed and paid for by newspapers. This aims to achieve the self-regulation of the press, to keep the government and state out of regulation. The newspapers fund the commission but they do not control it, and it can even propose an editor’s dismissal. The judiciary, also, is active with regard to violations of privacy, libel, defamation and so on. In Greece, where we do not have such a self-regulatory commission, the courts protect citizens’ rights. About half of the approximately 4,000 complaints that Britain’s PCC receives annually concern accuracy, and about a third concern violations of privacy. But self-regulation has obviously not been able to ease the suspicions of the public, and getting the state involved is obviously dangerous and contrary to the idea of a free press. There has never been a Golden Age of the press – neither in Britain nor Greece nor the other countries of our region. Journalists and politicians have a duty to do battle on a daily basis and today’s standards of accuracy are probably higher than in the past. What has changed in the equation is the fact that more people than ever have been empowered by the Internet and other new technologies and are better informed than they were in the past. They see everything that politicians and journalists do all day long. And familiarity breeds contempt. At the same time, great numbers of the public are happily consuming trash on television (and in newspapers) while demanding better journalists and politicians. Producing news that is serious, authoritative and comprehensive is expensive. With revenues falling because of advertising moving to new media, it is increasingly difficult for newspapers to survive. The result is that many undermine their own seriousness by «going light» and helping to strengthen the so-called celebrity culture, at the expense of news that matters to people’s lives. Or the media owners get more and more involved in cashing in on the clout that they are able to grant politicians. Either way, a bomb ticks away at democracy’s heart. Only journalists can break this deadly spiral, by cleaning their own house and demanding better of their publishers and their politicians. But can they when their livelihoods depend on their daily wage?