Edinburgh International Book Festival: Can We Trust the Media?

Review by Tina Koenig | 21 Aug 2013
  • esler

The collapse of trust in the media is something that could be discussed all day it seems, particularly with Newsnight’s Gavin Esler and his pick of panellists.

After the hacking scandal a mournful-looking question mark hangs as we ask if we can trust the news that’s presented to us, as well as Twitter and the internet generally. Esler explains that growing up in Edinburgh he and his friends used to trust the institutions that fill our lives, and many agree now that this trust has been ruined. Editor of The Scotsman Ian Stewart, University of Glasgow’s Professor of Cultural Policy Philip Schlesinger, and John Hatfield, former Head of Media Relations at ScottishPower, delved into this insightful topic.

Ian Stewart tells the audience that the media isn’t made up of “one big happy bunch”, that there are harsh words said and battles fought because “we don’t really like each other.” Yet, he makes a crucial point – that of the 62,000 journalists in the UK there is a body that investigates any complaints that are reported against them. He compares this to the complaints system of doctors, which is not as open, and backs up his argument, saying: “When it comes to trusting I think newspapers do a pretty good job.” Stewart hints at his frustration as hoops now have to be jumped through in order to comply with the new “draconian” Leveson regulations to regain the public’s trust. This is despite the fact that only a comparatively small chunk of the media were implicated.

It is inevitable that print readership is lower today thanks to the ‘digital revolution’. Schlesinger explains that, as can be seen from the recent suicides centering around social networking sites, we don’t quite know how to deal with the fact that newspapers are no longer just paper. Journalists who operate according to ethical principles now have to handle the complexity and confusion of the digital world. “Leveson is unfinished business,” the academic concludes.

John Hatfield sprinkles some welcome humour on a heavy conversation, joking that his breakdown of trust came at seven-years-old, when the illustrator of Oor Wullie changed in The Sunday Post. The cartoon looked entirely different and “that breached trust has stayed with me ever since.” Observers chuckle, but Hatfield receives several rounds of applause too for some compelling arguments. Exposés of MPs' expenses have dented trust in politics, banks and the Church – to name but a few. Hatfield points out that it was the media who brought these to the public’s attention. “This fearless, committed, angry journalism sets our media apart from the rest of the world,” he adds. Trust is dependent on breaking these stories that change the public’s lives.

There may not have been a total collapse of trust in the media, but maybe we trust each other a little less than we did a generation ago?

Can We Trust the Media? took place at The Edinburgh International Book Festival on 17 Aug http://www.edbookfest.co.uk/the-festival/whats-on/can-we-trust-the-media