When Michale Buerk went onto the Today program today to announce this evening's Moral Maze about the crisis of trust and authority, he signed off with a little insider joke: "It's not just MP's, it's judges, churches, doctors ... who is left that people can trust? Just journalists and broadcasters..." There was a satisfied chortle from Humphreys. Not the laugh of the joshing that Today encourages when it is Melvyn Bragg making a joke about Humphreys' age. No. It was the embarrassed chortle of someone who is trying to hide the satisfaction of believing this was true but should not be said too loud. "We know "Today" is a rock of truth and trustworthiness" whispered the chortle.
And yet, just a few minutes before, we had had someone from the Institute of Mechanical Engineers talking about combined heat and power - the practice of taking waste heat from power stations to heat houses and supply hot water. Innocent enough, it seems. And trustworthy. Yet there was no probing questioning. A small amount of research would have revealed David MacKay's fascinating argument for heat pumps and against combined heat an power.
So was this piece just lazy journalism? No doubt a Public Relations company approached Today with a ready-made story that didn't seem as if it would cause too much of a fuss and filled the difficult slot of 0650-0653 when politicians have gone to ground. But do we want to be paying a license fee to maintain a Public Relations channel open for whatever lobby group happens to strike the audience equivalent of a small win on the national lottery? Who was behind the story? Where were the engineering firms that supply combined heat and power plant? And how many stories, like this one, are lazy and questionable plugs?
The wind of mis-trust is blowing hard, and the national treasures on the BBC should not confidently chortle as they think of themselves as the rocks in the system while all other sources of confidence fall away.
We will soon, I hope, be asking the BBC to tell us how stories have come to them. We will want to know whether we would believe a story less if we understood its provenance. And we will be shocked to discover how much news that is presented as trustworthy becomes questionable when examined closely. And, in so far as we become more responsible for our own judgements, that will be a good thing.
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