The British like to think of their nation as the Mother of Parliaments but the truth is that British democracy is suffering from a serious lack of trust among voters. Just nine per cent of UK voters trust politicians, according to a survey of 2,000 voters carried out by Channel Five Television. That lack of trust was demonstrated in the first TV debate of the current election campaign. The leaders of the UK’s two biggest parties, Conservative Boris Johnson and Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, were laughed at several times by the studio audience during the programme. I’ve been making and watching studio television programmes for several decades and I have not seen politicians treated with such derision. Prior to the 2016 Referendum on Brexit, trust in politicians stood at 21 per cent, which was bad enough. In the latest survey, 77 per cent of voters said that their trust in politicians had fallen significantly during that campaign, a campaign in which, it is now accepted, many lies and misleading statements were peddled. It’s vital if trust in democracy is to be restored, that politicians are truthful. Sadly, already in this election campaign, excellent fact-checking services are calling out significant falsehoods every day.
In the past, UK politicians also held themselves more accountable to voters with leaders giving major press conferences each day at which policies could be scrutinised fully. Now, while there are some debates and longer interviews, much of the campaigning consists of photo opportunities during which journalists have very limited opportunities to ask in-depth questions.
If voters lose trust in politicians, they can lose trust in democracy itself. In the 2018 American Institutional Confidence Poll, only a little over half of young voters agreed that democracy was always the preferable system of government and around a third thought that non-democratic government could be better.
Too many politicians treat journalists as the enemy. The truth is that if politicians are to win back the trust of voters, they must both tell the truth and embrace the idea that they should hold themselves up to journalistic scrutiny.
Dorothy Byrne is the Chair of the Ethical Journalism Network and Head of News and Current Affairs at Channel Four. Her book, ‘Trust Me, I’m Not a Politician: A simple guide to saving democracy’ is available now.