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.

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.