Andreas Whittam Smith: No wonder the British no longer trust anyone

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The Independent Online

There are two sorts of wrongdoing. One is familiar, the other is rarely described. The first takes place at street level. It comprises crimes such as muggings, pick-pocketing at stations, shootings, burglaries and the like. This, we tell ourselves, is the work of the criminal fraternity, society's fringe. We may be the victims but we are never the cause. Not so in the case of the second. These are deceptions conceived and carried out by people in positions of trust. Their perpetrators belong to the well educated, property-owning, apparently respectable classes.

Readers beware, you may know them, they might live next door. You find them in Government, even at the level of secretaries of state – the sort of people, as was alleged last week, who suppress a report whose publication could have reduced the number of deaths from hospital infection.

They are managers in the high-street banks, removing funds from customers' accounts for charges which cannot be justified. Some of them are running the BBC and other media companies. Isn't it fraudulent to invite people to enter a competition they cannot win and profit from the expensive telephone calls they innocently make?

Let us dwell on an incident that only just crosses the line between honest and dishonest. Film footage of an interview with a reclusive pop star is first shown at the London Film Festival. The BBC buys it. But when it is later transmitted by the corporation, it gives the impression of being a first, although members of the public have already seen it.

By now, all traces of the identity of the original interviewer and of the director of the film have been removed. The "scoop" is presented as a further triumph for Alan Yentob, the BBC's Creative Director. You can argue that nobody is hurt here, no loss or injury is sustained by the viewers. Isn't it a genuinely victimless crime, if crime it is?

I suppose you might call it a non-criminal deception. The motive is to enhance the BBC's reputation by implying that it has access to celebrities that is denied to its rivals. The means are editing techniques which, like chisels and hammers, are tools for everyday tasks that can also be used with dishonest intent. There are victims – the viewers. Their loss is accurate knowledge of the BBC's strengths and weaknesses. And wrapped up in this incident is a pervading lack of respect for them.

As for secretaries of state and their civil servants and other advisors, we don't yet know the full story of the unpublished survey that identified a link between high bed occupancy rates in hospitals and MRSA infection. It is said to show that patients are nearly 50 per cent more likely to be struck down by MRSA if hospitals are more than 90 per cent full than if they are less busy.

This is because high occupancy doesn't leave staff sufficient time to clean beds and the areas round them. In explanation, a Health Department spokesman said: "Work started on this report in the summer of 2004. We are unable to comment on the figures as the final report will cover a different time period. We hope to publish this later this year as it is being updated."

Let us run through this incident again. You don't commission a report of this kind unless you suspect there is a link. Why not tell the public straight away, back in 2004, that the Government is concerned that there might be a dangerous relationship and that it had commissioned research? Every hospital would then have been alerted to a possible problem. Some might have maintained high occupancy rates but intensified their cleaning operations; others might have left beds empty for a little longer. The Department of Health would have trusted hospitals to act sensibly. Fewer people would have died from MRSA.

But perhaps the Department believed that early warning might have caused undue alarm, so it waited while the research proceeded. At a certain point, however, before every detail has been made secure, the accuracy of the hypothesis must have become clear. At this second point, an announcement could have been made. Lives would still have been saved. But to say nothing, keep the project a secret, let patients die when they might otherwise have lived, how moral is that?

In light of these episode, I should not have been surprised to learn the other day, as I was, that levels of trust in this country are relatively low. I had clung to the notion captured in Tony Blair's famous phrase that we are all "pretty straight sorts of guys". But this isn't so.

In regular World Value Surveys, people are asked whether they would agree that "most people can be trusted". In Denmark, Sweden and Norway, about 65 per cent of those questioned gave a positive response. These countries are at the top of the class. Japan came in at 46 per cent, India at 41 per cent, the United States at 36 per cent. Italy scored 33 per cent and Pakistan 31 per cent and still we haven't reached the UK. Our number came out at 30 per cent.

Gordon Brown should think about this the next time he looks straight at the cameras and says something as implausible as his explanation of why he didn't call an election. Being able to trust our Prime Minister would be a good start in encouraging people to respect each other a bit more.

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