So who do you trust the most? Dacre of the 'Mail' or Campbell of No 10 (retired)

Journalists should not expect to be loved, but they must regain public confidence
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The Independent Online

Each year the opinion pollster MORI surveys the public's view of the trustworthiness of various professions. Each year journalists and politicians battle it out for bottom place.

Each year the opinion pollster MORI surveys the public's view of the trustworthiness of various professions. Each year journalists and politicians battle it out for bottom place.

Usually they throw in estate agents too, as they are also held in low esteem. Millwall fans enjoy being united in unpopularity, standing on the terraces droning, "No one likes us, we don't care." Do politicians and journalists react to the MORI poll by gathering in the members' lobby or on the terrace of the House of Commons and singing in similar vein?

One hopes not, because trust is important, for both professions. And clearly there is little of it around just now. It is reassuring that top of the league come doctors (92 per cent), more trusted today than they have ever been. When it comes to the crunch, I would find it more important to trust my doctor than my MP.

But while politicians and journalists are trusted by 22 per cent and 20 per cent of us respectively, we find that business leaders (30 per cent), trade union officials (39 per cent), civil servants (51 per cent), the police (63 per cent) and the clergy and judges (both 75 per cent) are all much more trusted.

The post-Iraq war Kelly affair and subsequent Hutton inquiry were all about trust. Did we trust the politicians, the dossiers, the BBC's reporting?

Hutton told us that we should believe the politicians and suspect the BBC, which brought great joy to the politicians. But as the dust started to settle it became clear that the public did not see things quite as simply as Lord Hutton. Tony Blair has a trust problem, and that is a hard thing to turn round. Lack of trust costs votes.

Perhaps that's why politicians are so keen to interrogate journalists. They are always looking for a messenger to blame. Last Thursday, it was that most savage of messengers, Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail. He snarled to the Public Administration Committee in the Commons about Alastair Campbell. Asked why it was that politicians were so little liked and trusted, he summed it up in two words: Alastair Campbell - and his "culture of mendacity".

While the British read an enormous number of newspapers, they still tend to say they do not love them. Yet a public life increasingly dominated by spin and public relations, extending far beyond politics into corporate and public sector activity, requires journalists to dig and to expose. They start from a position of doubting the credibility of what those in authority tell them. They are often thought of as negative - politicians are always describing them that way - but they have so much experience of people in authority being economical with the truth that they know scepticism is a key requirement of an effective journalist.

Public lack of trust for journalists comes from the extent to which journalists are seen as inaccurate. The Press Complaints Commission receives far more complaints about accuracy than about invasion of privacy. The public will seize on the occasional error and on the crazy, and unimportant, celebrity tales, and assume - often rightly - that much of it is rubbish. They will give more attention to the newspapers getting it wrong, than to the vast majority of instances when they get it right.

Actually, given the amount of information that newspapers publish and the time constraints under which they operate, the papers are extraordinarily accurate most of the time. However, they are bad at being explicitly cautious about information in which they have some, but not complete, confidence. They are also bad at admitting to mistakes.

The Guardian pioneered the idea of a readers' editor, who is independent of the editor and deals with complaints and standards, correcting errors and discussing taste, ethics or controversy. The paper believes it has increased trust in its journalists. Other papers, such as this one, now have such a person, but it is by no means universal.

Journalists cannot easily be loved, and should not strive to be: they are in the business of upsetting people by disclosing what some would prefer left undisclosed. But they do need to be trusted more. First and foremost, they need to ask why the public doesn't trust them. And they need to leave behind the macho, arrogant superiority that can lead to cutting corners and inaccuracy. Being humble enough to admit mistakes is essential. Finally, it does newspapers no harm to remind their readers reasonably frequently just how much information they have access to only as a result of the probings of the press.

Sex! Scandal! Women in uniform!

The Daily Telegraph has a close affinity with the armed services and has given enormous coverage to the case of the major who seduced a succession of "junior ranks" (sic) culminating in the "blonde, vivacious warrant officer" (Angela McConnell, pictured) who ended up in the employment tribunal. Just as the Telegraph's favourite obituary is of an eccentrically nicknamed hero of the Burma campaign, so their favoured sex is in, or out of, uniform. Compared with the straightforward approach of other papers ("Soldier demoted after affair loses sex discrimination case" - The Independent), the Telegraph brought us "Furious cavalry wife loses sex scandal case". When did you last hear the phrase "cavalry wife"?