Thursday, 15 November 2012

The Natural History of Trust

There was a slightly Oriental tinge to George Entwhistle's resignation as Director General of the BBC, despite the absence of ostentatious bowing and crying. It was there in the prominent use of the word "honourable" by both the quondam DG and Chris Patten, Chairman of the BBC Trust (and former Governor of Hong Kong), and in the ready use of the word "shame" by the press. Since the weekend, the word that has come to the fore is "trust", as in "the BBC must restore public trust", though presumably not through seppuku. Peter Kellner of YouGov has been liberally spraying the media with opinion poll data, though his key message is that "the past decade has seen a decline in trust across the board". In relative terms the BBC remains well ahead of the likes of politicians and tabloid journalists. As Peter says, "something deeper is going on".

"Honour" and "shame" are subjective in that they rely on self-policing by the individual. If you are shameless, it doesn't matter if somebody else accuses you of being shameful. It has no effect unless you share their view on what constitutes behaviour worthy of shame. The verb to shame (i.e. "he was shamed into ...") is a form of coercion, which means you can simply resist. Trust, on the other hand, is objective to the extent that it concerns the expectation of one person about the likely behaviour of another, where that second person has previously given sufficient assurances to justify the expectation. Trust is contractual, which is why we talk of it being "betrayed" or sorrowfully say: "I expected better of you".

But does the YouGov data actually measure trust, in this sense of a social contract? In sociology, trust is taken to be "a measure of belief in the honesty, fairness, or benevolence of another party". This is distinct from "confidence", which is a measure of belief in the competence of another. The detailed YouGov data breaks down the question of trust by age and other dimensions. In respect of school teachers, it finds that 68% of the 18-24 year-old cohort are broadly trusting while this figure rises slightly to 70% among those 60 and over. All perfectly reasonable. But the figures for "don't knows" are respectively 17% and 3%, i.e. the mistrustful are 14% and a whopping 27%. Given that people over 60 generally have little contact with school teachers, while most of those in the 18-24 cohort will have had contact relatively recently, it seems odd that the older cohort are the more definite in their opinion. Perhaps they are more prone to bearing grudges over the years.

Something similar can be seen with trades union leaders. Unless you are a union member (only about 1 in 4 workers), you have no substantive trust relationship with them, i.e. no implicit contract, so what exactly are you assessing? The suspicion is that trust has become a synonym for "like" and is no more meaningful than a simple thumbs-up. The poll also shows that respondents generally trust leading politicians less than their local MP. Given that most people can't remember who their MP is (only a minority of the poll sample will even have voted for the election winner), and will have negligible dealings with them even if they can, the suspicion is that this difference in rating largely reflects exposure. Nadine Dorries can expect her popularity to plummet further.

In historical terms, trust gradually replaced the social and religious concepts of obligation that were broken down by the industrial revolution ("All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned"). This counter-movement took two main forms during the nineteenth century. The first was a reactionary revival of religion (and a related fashion for the medieval) in which a strong moral and ethical code encouraged both charitable obligation and (as a quid pro quo) an acceptance of the division of society: "The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, He made them, high or lowly, and ordered their estate." The second was the development of mutuality in the form of friendly societies and trades unions, culminating in the twentieth century welfare state (the contributory principle, often merely symbolic in practice, is important in respect of the idea of mutuality). However, the cultural artefact of public trust spread well beyond the welfare state proper, encompassing the behaviour of private enterprise (through socially-responsible regulation), the state (through democratic oversight of the police etc) and autonomous public bodies such as the BBC. Come the post-modern/neoliberal era, the framework of conventions and assumptions that embedded trust, i.e. the social-democratic consensus, was attacked as "restrictive", "inefficient" and lacking in "freedom of choice". The proposed solution was (and is) the market, but this solution is noticeably quiet about the role, if any, of trust.

Trust presumes engagement, the ability to take the measure of something before investing. Trust is a "forward option" as it anticipates future, contingent behaviour. This in turn implies predictability, but more flexibly than simple "conformance to spec". It rests on the shared assumption of what will persist and what behaviours can be expected. In a true market there is no predictability because there is no constraint on the actions of the market participants beyond their willingness to agree a price. This obviates the need for any independent ethical code. Thus "my word is my bond" has been replaced by hedging. Market fundamentalists explain market-rigging as the result of a market inefficiency, e.g. a lack of transparency or liquidity (popular explanations for the LIBOR and gas market scandals). In other words, the market isn't free enough. What it needs is not more regulation but less. In such a climate, trust is reduced to a question of system integrity, which is how the word has tended to be used in the field of technology. A trusted system exhibits reliability of operation. It does not exhibit benevolence. This brings trust close to the meaning of confidence - a belief in competence and capability.

As the concept of trust is elided with the cash-nexus, it appears to become simultaneously more dilute, hence "the decline in trust", and yet more transcendent, hence the religiose investment of trust in brands such as Apple or Virgin (as an aside, in the days before health-and-safety-gone-mad, the use of the word "trust" in advertising usually referred to unadulterated goods - now it just implies reliability: from "this won't kill you" to "no surprises in the small print"). The gradual evaporation of trust is emblematic of the emptying of the public space, as nomadic power and wealth ascends to the supra-national (in another era, the behaviour of Starbucks' and Amazon's UK management over tax would have resulted in a charge of treason), and individuals retreat to the private consolation of commodities.

A peculiarity of this movement is the way in which public trust is increasingly seen through the lens of private folly. Zygmunt Bauman in Liquid Modernity noted that: "What are commonly and ever more often perceived as 'public issues' are private problems of public figures." Personal failings are nothing new, nor is their impact on public policy, but what is notable is the degree to which private behaviour now degrades public trust. Lloyd George's sale of honours did not destroy trust in the honours system, nor did the Birminghman Six miscarriage destroy trust in the judicial system, because in each case public trust was invested in a wider framework than a dodgy politician or a biased judge. Compare with modern scandals. The MPs expenses cesspit has clearly damaged the entire political class, though many individual MPs were blameless, while the behaviour of Jimmy Savile is automatically assumed to reflect badly on the BBC in its entirety.

This twist on "the personal is political" is ironic in that it sees right-wing critics of public bodies happy to employ a systemic critique even when the issue is one of personal morality. Thus if Savile could get away with sexual abuse at White City, then the entire corporation was clearly complicit (by omission if not commission) and therefore culpable, even 30 years later. Contrast with the readiness with which wrongdoing in The City is isolated as the behaviour of "rogue traders", and systemic reform plays second fiddle to the maintenance of industry strength.

It has been the BBC's good fortune that this latest kerfuffle has coincided with another of the increasingly frequent bouts of David Attenborough love. This has served to remind us that the BBC is neither rotten to the core nor unsympathetic. It remains essentially benevolent. However, the reliance on a living icon is a double-edged sword. When Saint David eventually shuffles off this mortal coil, there will be few left with the moral authority (the public trust) to counter the suggestion that the BBC, after a quarter century of marketisation and management bollocks, is now just another business that should be exposed to the bracing discipline of the private sector.

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