A thread runs through several of the stories that have defined this turbulent summer: reporters have been shocked by the levels of hostility they have encountered. ‘They hate us,’ one seasoned producer told me returning from a Grenfell Tower protest. ‘I haven’t felt anything like it in 20 years.’
When the battalions of the media descend on any big story, the experience rarely leaves those caught up in it feeling warm and fuzzy about the fourth estate. But this is different.
In each case there is a specific, albeit related, animus. During the election, it was Corbyn supporters convinced the mainstream media was bent on doing down their man. At Grenfell, it was an alarmingly widespread suspicion that the media — and especially the BBC — were part of an establishment conspiracy to play down the scale of the disaster. For the Finsbury Park attack, the charge was that the sensationalist coverage of previous attacks had whipped up Islamophobia.
Saying that trust has been declining in most institutions is a bit like noting that fewer people go to church these days. But confidence in the media has been ebbing quicker than a spring tide. The percentage of people in the UK who said they trusted the media fell from 36 to 24 in the last year, according to the annual Edelman Trust Barometer. If things continue at that rate, fewer than one in ten people will trust us three years from now.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see what a wholesale breakdown of trust in the media can do to a society. In the US, average levels of trust in the media have more than halved since the 1970s. But they have collapsed among Republicans, just 14 per cent of whom say they trust the media. When whole portions of a society don’t believe what they read or hear, the prospects of building any kind of cross-party consensus about what’s true and what isn’t become vanishingly thin. What’s left is a vacuum in which made-up stories are as plausible as any other kind. Fake news is not a tech problem; it’s a symptom of broken trust in the media.
We tend to comfort ourselves that the picture in Britain is nothing like as grim; that our debate is more reasoned. Broadcasters still command relatively high levels of public confidence and even the BBC’s detractors acknowledge that it’s trusted by more people than not. But the howls of outrage from first SNP supporters, then Corbynistas, over alleged BBC bias had alarming echoes of the rising anti-media mood we’ve seen in the US.
There is a real risk that we will slide into a vicious cycle: the more vituperative and orchestrated the criticism becomes, the more inclined we in the media are to ignore it. And as a result, the more vituperative and orchestrated it becomes.
To this febrile atmosphere, we then add the complication of two major parties splitting down the middle — the Tories over Brexit, and Labour over Corbyn. In such circumstances, the chances that someone, somewhere will see bias in any piece of output multiply. In a much simpler world not long ago, a discussion panel could be comfortably balanced with a representative from right and left. But nowadays, unless it reflects both centrist and Corbynite Labour factions, Brexiteers and Remainers, someone, somewhere will be stewing.
I don’t pretend to have any easy answers, but here are a few things that might help. Firstly, journalists should show a bit more humility. We should admit when we get things wrong. Most of us badly underestimated Corbyn, for instance: we should own up to it and ask what we can learn. Second, we should perhaps also engage with conspiracy theories, even when they seem quite batty. The idea that media have been conspiring to minimise the number of casualties in the Grenfell fire seems preposterous to most journalists. But it has taken grip to a shocking extent. We need to address such fallacies head-on.
Third, we should give airtime to a greater diversity of voices. Of all the criticisms regularly levelled at shows like Newsnight, maybe the fairest is that too many of our contributors come from a relatively narrow band of opinion. It’s perhaps not surprising that viewers and listeners who do not see their own views reflected are less inclined to trust our coverage.
Possibly the most important thing we can do, however, is to acknowledge we have a problem. Right now the media’s attitude to trust brings to mind the proverbial frog in the pan of boiling water. Each increase in the temperature seems just about tolerable, but before we know it we are cooked. And it is starting to feel quite hot in here.