On Sunday 3rd November, the Academy of Ideas looked at falling levels of trust in our institutions, asking where this comes from, how significant it is and how we should respond to it.
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The idea of trust, and worries about its decline, have become a major preoccupation across all sectors of society. Politicians are worried that the public no longer trusts them, businesses are concerned that their consumers distrust them and journalists fret that readers trust fake news more than their reporting. Even civil servants, previously considered to be the pinnacle of trust and professionalism, are no longer deemed trustworthy after a series of high-profile leaks.
Growing distrust now seems to be a general phenomenon, but one particularly focused on institutions. A succession of scandals – from the expenses scandal undermining trust in MPs, to the Oxfam sex scandal undermining trust in charities – have made many question whether institutions can be trusted to uphold the public good. Some welcome a readiness to distrust institutions, as it is said to reflect a mature and healthy scepticism towards authority. Nonetheless, there also seems to be a yearning for trustworthy and authentic figures in politics and culture.
Some see the roots of this growing distrust in the erosion of traditional understandings of public service. For a long time, a normal assumption about journalists, doctors or civil servants was that, whatever their opinions, they were motivated by a sense of public duty. Today, it is more likely that people see such figures as motivated by their own self-interest or the demands of their organisation. When such cynical motivations are thought to be at play, is it surprising that we are less willing to trust?
For others, growing distrust is a function of the politicisation of ostensibly neutral institutions. If institutions are seen as no longer being impartial, can they be trusted? Or, perhaps the obsession with trust comes from anxiety within institutions about threats to their traditional claims to authority. If institutions are less sure of the role they play in society, they can no longer take their authority for granted and must focus on winning the trust of a sceptical population.
Trust is of profound importance to every aspect of our lives. We need to trust that food is labelled correctly to avoid allergies, that air-traffic controllers do their jobs properly and that banks process transactions properly. What, therefore, are the implications of a breakdown in public trust? Is the phenomenon confined to certain sectors or institutions or is distrust a more generalised feature of life today? What motivates growing distrust and what can be done to restore trust in institutions? Or, should we welcome this new wave of scepticism?
Tim Black - Editor & Columnist at spiked
Tim Black is the editor of the spiked review and a columnist at spiked.
He holds a PhD in English from the University of Sussex and, on top of working for spiked, has written for a number of other mediums, including the EUobserver, The Australian, The Independent and La República.
Miranda Green - Deputy Opinion Editor, Financial Times
Miranda Green spent six years at the Financial Times as an assistant UK news editor and a deputy world news editor before becoming the paper’s education eorrespondent and finishing up on the House of Commons lobby team.
She continues to write for the FT and has also been a contributor to The Observer, The Economist’s Intelligent Life magazine, The Times, The Guardian and a number of journals. Her writing brought her the Comment Awards' Culture, Diary and Social Commentator of the Year prize in 2018 and she was the founding editor of The Day (the first daily news publication for teenagers), where she remains an associate editor.
On television and radio, Miranda is a regular political pundit, appearing on BBC1’s This Week programme, on BBC2’s Newsnight and on BBC Radio 4’s The World Tonight - she also regularly presents What the Papers Say.
Outside of journalism, Miranda Green worked for the Liberal Democrats from 1996-2000 and was Paddy Ashdown’s press secretary during his last two years as leader of the party.
Simon Wessely - Regius Professor of Pyschology at Kings College London
Sir Simon Wessely is the Regius professor of psychiatry at King’s College London and a consultant liaison psychiatrist at King’s College and the Maudsley Hospitals. He has been the president of the Royal Society of Medicine since 2017 and, from 2014-2017, he was the president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
Simon Wessely originally studied medicine at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, before finishing his medical training at University College Oxford, where he graduated in 1981. He then completed his assessments for the MRCP in Newcastle, before moving to London to train in psychiatry at the Maudsley. He is an active clinical academic psychiatrist and was elected to the Academy of Medical Sciences in 1999.
Starting his research career looking into unexplained symptoms and syndromes, he established the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Research Unit in 1991 and was a founder member of the Cochrane Depression and Anxiety Group. In 1996, he established the Gulf War Illness Research Unit, which, in 2003, subsequently became the King’s Centre for Military Health Research.
Simon Wessely has written over 800 original publications on topics such as the boundaries of medicine and psychiatry, unexplained symptoms and syndromes, reactions to adversity, military health and epidemiology and he has co-authored books on chronic fatigue syndrome, randomised controlled trials and the history of military psychiatry.
Linda Woodhead - Professor of Society and Religion, Lancaster University
Linda Woodhead MBE is a distinguished professor of religion and society at Lancaster University and a director of the Institute of Social Futures at Lancaster University.
She has recently completed research on the beliefs and values of post-millennials and on the demise of religion in Britain and the USA. Her single and co-authored books include: That Was the Church That Was: How the Church of England Lost the English People (2016); A Sociology of Prayer (2015); Everyday Lived Islam in Europe (2013); Religion and Change in Modern Britain (2012); A Sociology of Religious Emotions (2010); The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion Is Giving Way to Spirituality (2005); Christianity: A Very Short Introduction (2004) and Religions in the Modern World (2001).
Between 2007 and 2012, Linda Woodhead was the director of the national AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society research programme. She is a co-founder of the Westminster Faith Debates with the Rt. Hon. Charles Clarke and is a regular commentator on media programmes discussing belief and values, in particular on the BBC’s The Big Questions.
Ella Whelan - Journalist, Author & Battle of Ideas Co-Convenor
Ella Whelan is the co-convenor of the 2019 Battle of Ideas festival.
She also works as a journalist and is the author of What Women Want: Fun, Freedom and an End to Feminism.
From 2015-2018, Ella Whelan was the assistant editor of spiked and the host of the spiked podcast. Now working as a co-convenor for the Battle of Ideas festival of debate, she remains a frequent commentator on TV and radio and writes for The Sun, The Spectator, The Sunday Times, The Economist, Conscience and other outlets. Her interviews also feature in the spiked review.
Jacob Reynolds - Partnerships Manager, Academy of Ideas
Jacob Reynolds is the Academy of Ideas' partnerships manager. He also works as a co-convenor for the Academy of Ideas organisations, Living Freedom, The Academy and the boi charity.
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This discussion forms part of 2019’s Battle of Ideas festival of debate. This is the 15th year of the annual debate platform organised by the Academy of Ideas, which, in its own words, seeks to provide a space for interrogating ideas, open discussion and civilised debate.
To find out more about this year’s Battle of Ideas, visit the festival website at https://www.battleofideas.org.uk/why-battle-ideas/.