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
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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.