The crisis of trust in institutions

Battle of Ideas festival 2019, Sunday 3 November, Barbican, London


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 their consumers distrust them, 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. For example, 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, as perhaps is shown by repeated calls for ‘judge-led inquiries’ into all sorts of issues, there also seems to be a yearning for ‘trustworthy’ 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, a growing distrust is a function of the politicisation of ostensibly neutral institutions. Whether it be institutions like the NHS taking a stand on cultural issues, like inviting men who identify as women to cervical screening appointments, or central bankers holding forth on political issues, it seems that many governing institutions have abandoned their claim to impartiality. If they are no longer impartial, can they therefore be trusted? Or perhaps the obsession with trust comes from anxiety within institutions about the questioning of 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 it 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 a new scepticism?

Dr Tim Black
books and essays editor, spiked

Miranda Green
journalist; commentator; deputy editor of opinion pages, Financial Times; former Liberal Democrat advisor

Professor Sir Simon Wessely
Regius chair of psychiatry, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King’s College London; president, Royal Society of Medicine

Linda Woodhead
distinguished professor of religion and society, Lancaster University; author, That Was the Church That Was: how the Church of England lost the English people

Ella Whelan
co-convenor, Battle of Ideas festival; journalist and frequent commentator on TV and radio; author, What Women Want