Teachers, journalists, pollsters - who can we trust these days?

The story of a generation - lied to, again and again, yet ultimately powerless.

The thing I used to dread about being a teacher, above all, was Parents’ Evening. Especially if the child was struggling. Then it seemed there were only three types of parents. There were Group A - the ones who made you feel sorry for the kid: (“Sorry he’s so crap. Shall I ground him?”). There were Group B - the belligerent:

“I’m afraid I think your child’s dyslexic.”

“He’s not.”

“But I sent him to the Special Educational Needs supervisor and had him tested.”

“He’s not.”

“He can’t spell his own name.”

“He’s not.”

And then there were possibly the worst, Group C - the ones who, quite rightly, put absolute blind faith in you: “You know best, you’re the expert, you just tell us what to do.” Well: actually I’m in my mid-twenties, I spend my evenings playing FIFA on my Playstation and wondering how spending hours in the company of your recalcitrant child turned out to be my life, and frankly I’m scared I’ll screw him up to such an extent that he’ll end up like, well, me. I’m the last person I’d ask.

And that’s the thing about professionalism. Half of it is resisting the urge to say to Group A either, “Everything’s fine” or “Yes. ground him for as long as you can – till the age of 21, preferably”, to say to Group B “Everything’s fine” or “Get out of my face, you bumptious little arsehole”, and to refrain from breaking down in tears in front of Group C and asking them why your girlfriend left you.

According to YouGov’s latest poll on trust, 70 per cent of us trust teachers to tell the truth – a steep decline from 2003, when apparently 88 per cent of people were happily taking me at my word. I’d say that’s probably right – not because 30 per cent of teachers are untrustworthy, but because teachers are people, trying their best, and, being human, sometimes choose to evade, equivocate, or maybe tell a white lie from time to time.

I’d been wanting to write a blog about the breakdown of trust in public life for ages, but I realised there was a problem: most of you don’t believe a word I say. Only 38 per cent of people trust journalists on "upmarket newspapers" to tell the truth. And I’m being disingenuous by putting myself in that category, what with most of my stuff appearing online these days and the New Statesman not being a newspaper. You probably need to extend the chart a few columns down, so "bloggers" can slot in behind Jeffrey Archer and Bernie Madoff.



But let’s see what this poll tells us about society. What it paints is either a depressing picture, or a heartening one, depending on how you look on it. Our faith in every single institution but one has, over the last nine years, dipped. Judges, journalists, doctors, policemen, teachers – we’ve lost faith in all of them. 

As I said, you could frame an example like teaching in a positive light – our populace is more skeptical; less credulous. Our faith in newspapers is inversely proportional to their circulations: this week the Sun ran an information box containing the figures on the huge decline in trust of BBC journalists (from 81 per cent to 44 per cent), but neglected to mention that red tops had also declined - to 10 per cent from an initially meagre 14 in 2003. It’s that sort of behaviour that means, well, only one in ten people trust you. Yet this doesn’t stop the Sun having far and away the highest circulation. We know it’s full of balls, but we buy it anyway: that’s us Brits, reading the news while taking a pinch of salt with our tongues in our cheeks.



But I think a far sadder picture lurks behind this chart. I am 31 years old this month. It feels to me - perhaps older readers with a different historical perspective will have another view  - like the last few years have drastically undermined my view of the Britain in which I grew up.



Of course, nine years ago I wouldn’t have said the media or the Met were squeaky clean - but I never dreamed of the scale of corruption and illegality that’s been exposed in recent times. Likewise we’d had parliamentary scandals before, but the sheer arrogance of those involved in the MPs expenses scandal still shocked me. I didn’t march in protest over Iraq. I thought the intelligence services and Cabinet knew something I didn’t.

And on it goes, with the systematic cover-up over Hillsborough, the scale of Savile’s debauchery, the crisis at the BBC – all happening at a time when we’re suffering the greatest betrayal of all. This young man believed we’d cracked the balance of economic growth and social equality. He deferred to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – without realising, he also deferred to Fred Goodwin. Look at the world our young face: sky-high youth unemployment, student debts, worse pensions, a lack of affordable housing – what would I say at those parents’ evenings now?

That is the story of my generation – lied to, again and again, yet ultimately powerless, until all that’s left is nihilistic cynicism. I wanted to believe in the big society, because I felt that endemic to many of these scandals was a centralising of power. It was another dream that fell by the wayside. It’s all so horrifying we barely know which way to turn – as Nick Cohen says of Occupy, it was “representative of our directionless times when reformers have no coherent ideology.”



That’s what I read from the YouGov chart, anyway. But then I could also ask why our faith in judges rocketed in 2006; why our faith in directors of big companies has gone up. It seems to make no sense. Maybe the methodology’s flawed. But at least we can trust our polling companies, can’t we?



 

Judges, journalists, doctors, policemen, teachers – we’ve lost faith in all of them. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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Why the Psychoactive Substances Act is much better than anyone will admit

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity