A Week in Books: A matter of trust

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The Independent Culture

Who do you trust? Blair or Gilligan; Hoon or Howard; or none of the above? Next week, the hullaballoo over the Hutton report will uncork a stream of commentary about the "collapse of trust" in every institution you care to name, from Downing Street and Parliament to the BBC and (inevitably) the press. This topic has, for a decade or more, acted as a favourite hobby-horse in that scuffed arena of debate where academia and policy-making meet the media. Francis Fukuyama, waking up from the "end of history", deemed that Anglo-Saxon liberal capitalism had created a peerless regime of socio-economic Trust. In her 2002 Reith lectures, Onora O'Neill berated the press for failing to answer A Question of Trust while pleading for academic privilege like some philosophical shop-steward. Over several books (notably Culture of Fear), the arch-libertarian Frank Füredi has scolded namby-pamby, risk-averse parents and consumers.

They all assume that public and private trust has declined, is declining, and should flourish again. Cue those recurrent surveys about levels of trust in professions, with journalists, politicians and estate agents forever in the relegation zone. Yet the papers that routinely abuse their readers' and informants' trust sell more copies than those that play straight; and shiny, slimy politicians win more elections than their honest, plodding rivals. As for estate agents: we'd all secretly like Messrs Shark & Ripoff to hoodwink buyers for our benefit. I don't trust people who give the pious expected responses to pollsters.

All of which helps to explain why you should have confidence in Kieron O'Hara's new book Trust: from Socrates to spin (Icon, £12.99). Despite a fatuous back-cover blurb about how we can get back our "faith in authority" (no thanks, Ayatollah) and a preface by Will Hutton that seems to describe quite another work, O'Hara succeeds precisely because he casts such a bracingly jaundiced eye over the trust-related platitudes of recent years. Spreading himself far too thinly - from Greek philosophy to economic theory, political history to internet fraud and scientific showdowns such as BSE and MMR - he still shows that trust and its withdrawal remains a deeply irrational process. (On 12 September 2001, the US people suddenly re-trusted their President and Congress.) And, for better or worse, there's far more of it about than we now assume. "People place trust pretty well automatically," O'Hara concludes, "are surprised when that trust is misplaced, and do not lightly withdraw it." In Western cultures this "delicate plant" blooms mightily - too much, maybe.

Sadly, the endlessly sparky O'Hara doesn't truly trust his readership. That nervousness leads at times to the joky-blokey tone of a seminar leader trying to clarify Aristotelian ethics for a class full of sullen Loaded readers. He should learn from the great Richard Sennett, who has faith in our serious attentiveness. This kind of study, showily erudite yet desperate to sound matey, seeks to blend the zest of journalism with the depth of scholarship. That aim reminds me of the Edwardian actress Mrs Patrick Campbell, flirting with her genius friend: "We should have a child, Shaw. It would have my beauty and your brains." The great dramatist replied that it might easily turn out the other way around.

Still, I savoured, enjoyed and admired O'Hara's scattergun scepticism about the "trust" debate, far more so than the watertight solemnities of O'Neill. Which matters in this area, where paradox abounds. We may value other qualities beyond, even above, trustworthiness - an ambivalence that dates to the roots of Western thought, and Greek wars between rhetoric and dialectic. Besides, as O'Hara notes, "We believe stories in the papers about how little trusted journalists are... Go figure." Post-Hutton, let this tricky, timely book help with your figuring.