Don't shoot the messengers

Observations - Politics, the media and trust

Open season has been declared on the media. First, we had the general secretary of the Labour Party blaming hacks for spreading cynicism about politicians; then, Alastair Campbell decided to take two journalists to the Press Complaints Commission for telling what he believes to be porky-pies about the Prime Minister and the Queen Mum's funeral arrangements. Now, a prominent academic uses this year's Reith lectures to accuse journalists of talking up a crisis of trust that doesn't exist.

All three are right in highlighting the corrosive relationship that exists between those that do things and those that merely write about them. All are mistaken in their conclusion.

Campbell's well-documented fracas with Peter Oborne and Simon Walters is a battle of wills masquerading as principle. The objections of the other two media-bashers are more thought-provoking. Both David Triesman, the new boss at Millbank Tower, and Onora O'Neill, professor of philosophy and principal of Newnham College, Cambridge, seem to suggest that trust is a citizen's duty and a politician's right. The function of the press, by logical extension, is to act as an intermediary between the two. Instead, according to Triesman, journalism treats all politicians "as though they have some nefarious and personal gain at stake"; and, according to O'Neill, it engenders a "culture of suspicion".

In the final of her five lectures, broadcast on 1 and 4 May, O'Neill suggested procedural changes that would require greater accountability of the profession. Proprietors should declare an interest when their newspapers focus on a particular issue; payments to sources should be declared; a stricter code should apply so that sources quoted in stories are clearer; and comment and news should be better separated.

If only it were that simple. Britain has one of the most inquiring and lively newspaper cultures in the world. Its journalists tend to be less deferential than their counterparts in other countries. Has this degraded our political system, forcing politicians to go perpetually on the defensive and corroding trust?

Look at France, where the relationship between the fourth estate and elected representatives is more the way that the Blairites might like it. During the first round of the presidential elections last month, the 16 candidates were given ample time, interrupted only by a gentle prod from the interviewing panel, to state their case. The main national newspapers, left and right, are considerably more highbrow than their equivalents in the UK; their circulation is considerably lower. And has this varnish prevented the corrosion of trust? Look at the first-round results. I rest my case.

New Labour was born out of a distrust of the media. If only the hacks had laid off Neil Kinnock, the architects believed, all would have been different. But now, at party HQ, there's talk of a "new compact" with the press - less spin in return for a fairer crack of the whip.

When it comes to a crisis of trust in public institutions, the media may be a problem. But politics is the problem.

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