Regaining Public Trust

posted 28 Jan 2021 6 mins

(Virtual) Event with Lord Puttnam CBE Truthful dissemination of information has, arguably, never been more important and we were honoured to welcome Lord Puttnam CBE as guest speaker on 28th January for our virtual webinar, Regaining Public Trust.

The acclaimed producer of films such as Chariots of Fire, The Killing Fields and Midnight Express, Lord Puttnam has, in the last 20 years, gained an equally distinguished record as a parliamentarian and educationalist. In 2019 he was appointed chair of the House of Lords’ Select Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies.

In conversation with Venetia Hoare and Rennie Hoare, Lord Puttnam explored in depth some of the ways in which digital media can support or undermine democracy:

‘The Select Committee report, Digital Technology & The Resurrection of Trust, took 15 months to compile,’ he recalled. ‘During that time we took evidence from a wide variety of individuals, organisations and institutions from all around the world. I’d originally planned to title the report The Restoration of Trust, but the evidence we collected made it clear that a cocktail of fake news, misinformation and disinformation had created a situation so serious that ‘restoration’ seemed an entirely inadequate word. Only ‘resurrection’ adequately expressed the depth to which the provision of accurate, reliable or trusted information had sunk.’

Brexit, the pandemic and the storming of the US Capitol have, he argued, brought the issue of public trust to crisis point:

‘Trust in politicians is probably at an all-time low. I think it has gone up and down a bit, but it has reached a point now where it’s not so much the politicians individually who are mistrusted, it’s the way they go about politics. There’s a lack of honesty, a lack of candour, everything is hedged. It’s just a seemingly wilful inability to be straight with us. Jim Callaghan was possibly not the most brilliant politician, but I remember him saying to me, “If you’re going to be a politician, you’ve got to learn to trust the people”. What we have now, I’m afraid, is mutual mistrust: they don’t trust us and therefore we’ve come to mistrust them.’

This disaffection with politics and democratic principles is exacerbated by an unregulated digital environment, resulting in a dangerous ‘amplification of untruth’: ‘The Online Harms Bill, as currently drafted, is framed to prevent harm to individuals, but this is not the whole problem: we can also be harmed as collectives,’ said Lord Puttnam. ‘Governments have got to accept that multiple harms can be done to multiple groups unless regulation makes it much more difficult.’

The Australian government’s legal wrangle with Google is, he believes, an important bellwether for the international community:

‘Someone said to me that what’s really going on in Australia is a fight between Rupert Murdoch and Google, but it’s much more profound than that. If the prime minister of a good-sized country like Australia – that’s 25 million people – says to other heads of state, “Guys, you’ve got to back me, I’ve got a real problem with a very big organisation who is trying to defy us”, then those other prime ministers and presidents will have to, in the end, come down on the side of the nation state. We have to be able to say to such organisations “We’re going to establish regulations and you have to conform to them. We’re perfectly prepared to discuss and debate them, but these are our laws”. This is almost an existential argument for democracy. It’s not an argument the Chinese have to enter into, it’s not an argument Putin has to enter into, but because democracy is so complex and complicated, it is a fight we absolutely must enter into and the nation states must win.’

At grass-roots level, improved digital literacy is vital for a generation receiving most of its information online:

‘We’ve been waiting and waiting for a digital strategy from the Department for Education. There’s no question that young people are not being helped sufficiently to understand the complexity of the world they’re inhabiting; they’re not being told how important it is to check facts or differentiate between unsafe sources. Back in 1981 Steve Jobs was talking about the importance of maximising what computers could do, not instead of traditional teaching, but in parallel with teachers. We have been very, very slow on this, partly because it involves a very high level of professional development – you’ve got an entire generation of older teachers who will find it tough, to say the least. So we’ve still got a 20th-century education system that we‘re trying to impose on 21st-century learners.’

Moving public debate from online silos to a genuinely democratic arena is, in Lord Puttnam’s opinion, the way forward:

‘I’m a big fan of citizens’ assemblies. These have been an extraordinary success in Ireland, where I’ve lived for 30 years. The abortion referendum and the same-sex marriage referendum were exceptionally well informed debates. People who were against the proposed changes had every opportunity to put their case and the arguments were very well reported. In the end, people decided based on what they’d heard. In the UK we’ve just got to get better at engaging citizens, allowing them to see they have a responsibility to consider issues carefully and making it our responsibility to ensure they hear both sides of the argument.’

Following many thoughtful questions from the ‘floor’, Lord Puttnam concluded that while restoring public confidence in government ‘could not be more urgent or more important’, there is no quick fix: confidence must be built in increments and continuously nurtured.

‘I was speaking to a minister recently about legislative changes the government would like to make in light of our leaving Europe. It was to do with communications, and I said, “Look, it’s very simple. You’ve got one absolute criterion to apply: does this build trust? If it doesn’t, you should run a mile from it.” We’re living in dangerous times and I feel very strongly that this is the central issue for democracy: in the end, all roads lead back to trust.