Mistrust and ‘hysteria’ as UK’s institutions wobble

The BBC, the House of Commons, the press and the police have all been hit by scandals. Signs of a new era of transparency, a moment of deeper crisis, or an outbreak of ‘hysteria’?

It’s a chain reaction, observed one commentator yesterday: each fresh revelation about child abuse brings ‘frenzied’ media coverage, leading to new allegations of wrongdoing which in turn must be investigated. As the investigations go on, more claims emerge and the media furore builds again.

To some, this is the latest chapter in a wider story: a profound crisis of trust in UK institutions, which began with a 2009 scandal about MPs defrauding the taxpayer. To others, the falling trust flowing from these scandals is out of proportion. Who wins and who loses?

BBC

Last month, the BBC cancelled an investigation into abuse of teenagers by former presenter Jimmy Savile. Then they aired a report wrongly implicating a Conservative politician in another child abuse allegation. The Corporation is now in crisis, and the BBC’s enemies in the commercial media have gleefully turned the knife in this self-inflicted wound. Daily resignations by BBC bosses have failed to halt the outrage. Audiences could lose BBC output if the licence fee is threatened, but other media empires are set to gain.

Politicians

Failures to properly investigate a separate abuse case, this time in children’s homes in Wales, mean the Savile scandal has spread to the political classes. Politicians stand accused of ignoring abuse: only a few years after some MPs exploited the House of Commons expenses system for personal gain, their reputation is taking another battering. Each scandal damages not only individuals but the standing of the whole political system. The winners are the parts of the press that sell newspapers by uncovering secrecy and scandal.

The Press

Much of the commercial media is enjoying the BBC’s humiliation. But this comes after months of attacks on the popular press, especially newspapers owned by the Murdoch family’s News Corp after private investigators were found to have hacked into mobile telephones for stories. Lord Leveson is on the verge of recommending tighter press regulation, which could hamper newspapers’ ability to investigate other powerful parts of the establishment.

Police

Leveson’s public inquiry has also examined close (some would say corrupt) links between parts of the tabloid press and officers in the Metropolitan police, designed to get big front-page stories. The reputation of the police has suffered, and one Met chief has resigned over links to the Murdoch media empire. On top of this, police investigations of child abuse have been criticised as inadequate, and the official report into the 1989 Hillsborough disaster revealed a cover-up on a previously unimaginable scale, designed to conceal police mistakes.

Open and shut case

One of the guiding principles of modern democracies is to constantly increase openness and transparency. In the UK, this has meant new Freedom of Information laws and a succession of long, costly inquiries each time errors come to light. Those who support this trend quote the American Louis Brandeis: ‘Sunlight is the best disinfectant’.

That’s enough, say others. Society is becoming hysterical and seeing conspiracies everywhere. We must call a halt to endless investigations and inquiries. By focusing on which BBC or police bosses should resign, and which politicians failed to spot the enormity of past wrongdoings, we turn our eyes from crimes that are occurring right now. And if the public loses faith in the lasting ability of public institutions, there will be no one left to govern or protect the ordinary citizen.

You Decide

  1. How much do you trust the public institutions that run your country?
  2. Is transparency and openness always a good thing?

Activities

  1. Choose one element of this story and try to explain it by drawing your own infographic.
  2. Become a reporter: ask a range of people the two questions in ‘You decide’ and make a news story about attitudes to public institutions. You can make a video or audio report or write it up.

Some People Say...

“You can’t rely on anyone but yourself.”

What do you think?

Word Watch

Freedom of Information
Legislation introduced by Tony Blair’s Labour government soon after coming to power, but hugely regretted by him as an intrusion on the ability to governments and civil servants to do their job properly. Blair came to believe that letting journalists and ordinary people see written records of what happens inside the machinery of government ended up discouraging honest transactions and free expression and discussion of policy decisions.
Louis Brandeis
An American Supreme Court justice who served from 1916 to 1939.
Fleet St
The written press is often referred to collectively as ‘Fleet Street’ after the road which used to house the great newspaper offices in central London.

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