Television

BBC DG Thompson calls for new dialogue to restore trust in British public life

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MUMBAI: BBC Director-General (DG) Mark Thompson is calling for a new dialogue aimed at restoring trust in British public life.

In a speech in London, Thompson says that broadcasters have learned good lessons on the subject of trust. "Trust in the 21st century Britain is fragile for everyone. Trust in a given institution may be based on a great tradition and great inherited values, but it depends on what you do today. It has to be earned and earned again. And the higher the trust, the higher the public expectation," he says.

In considering what should be done about trust in public life, he rejects calls for tighter regulation of the press.

Referring to a speech made by Tony Blair last June, Thompson says Britain's former PM had been right to suggest that the relationship between the media and the public sphere in Britain had been damaged.

But he adds, "It's difficult to see how any new regulation consistent with press freedom could significantly address the ills he listed that day. And if my diagnosis of the problem is right, tighter regulation might actually increase rather than decrease public distrust."

Thompson calls for reflection on the issue from everyone: politicians, media and the public. At the same time, he says he does not want to lecture anyone in the ways they should change. Instead, it is important that someone make the first move, and "no one is better placed to do that than the BBC."

In addition to measures aimed at safeguarding trust following problems with interactivity and the documentary about the Queen, the BBC now aims to undertake a number of new initiatives which will:

- Transform the way the BBC connects with British democracy – and all of its many democratic institutions – by establishing the world's most creative multimedia portal that will offer comprehensive political coverage and analysis to every secondary school in the UK.

- Build on the success of the BBC's College of Journalism by working with partners such as the Reuters Institute, university departments and the media to provide open access to the corporation's multimedia journalism resources and training.

- Evolve and develop output to create more opportunities for in-depth multi-platform set-pieces on a range of major stories throughout the year.

- Make output that explores ideas about policy and policy choices rather than simply react to what has been said, and also try harder to expose serious spin.

One thing ruled out, however, is an end to tough political interviews.

"It's sometimes suggested that the solution to the problem of trust would be to tone down some of our interviewing. If only people like John Humphrys and Nick Robinson and Jeremy Paxman were less aggressive, the public's confidence in politics and politicians would be restored and their cynicism would evaporate.

"Well, not on my watch. I don't believe that the public want to see less rigour in our questioning of politicians and other public figures: if anything, they want to see more," he said.

He also says that long-term research into attitudes on trust does not support the view that the public are more distrustful about those in public life.

"British scepticism about those in public life is not a new phenomenon. Most people doubted politicians' motives even in the 'good old days.' Ipsos-Mori's work over a generation does not show clear evidence of a large-scale long-term decline, let alone a crisis. If anything, both ministers and journalists have seen a slight improvement in recent years – albeit bumping along a very low base."

"The British public do not believe that our political system is riddled with corruption – they're actually rather less likely to say they think politicians are in it for selfish motives than citizens in many other western countries. Many of them do believe that, for whatever reasons, politicians and government ministers and officials cannot be relied upon to tell them anything like the whole truth."

He concludes that public trust is the life-blood of the BBC – which is why the corporation has taken its own problems with trust so seriously in recent months. But the BBC also could have a special role in addressing the wider question of public trust.

"In my view, this is not a crisis – but it is a real problem with real consequences. It arises less from doubts about the motives of people in public life, and more from an anxiety about truth-telling and the gulf that exists between this country's technocratic elite and much of its population."

The BBC cannot solve the problem on its own, he says, but can help kick start the process.

"I don't think there is anything more important that I can do in my time as editor-in-chief of this organisation."

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