PATRICIA EDGAR. The ABC, Facebook and the Meaning of Trust

Jul 6, 2018

Trust is an interesting concept. It takes time to develop trust which results from a broad experience of something (or someone) which demonstrates consistent, reliable behavior with integrity, ability, and surety; it involves confident expectation. But trust can be lost irretrievably, quite quickly. Trust allows for mistakes if they are dealt with openly and honestly. It does not forgive manipulation, dishonesty and betrayal.

This brings me to the recent Roy Morgan Media Net Trust Survey that found in 3 surveys of 4000 Australians, that the public gives a negative trust value to the banks of minus 18, while media companies score minus 7. Morgan subtracted distrust from trust to achieve a Net Trust Score (NTS). While the banks are seen as the most toxic brands, media companies are still in negative territory.  When 1,111 people were asked which media they trust and distrust most, the results show half of all Australians (47%) distrust social media compared to only 9% who distrust the ABC.

The only three media organizations that get a positive score are the ABC, SBS and Fairfax, in that order. The commercial networks score between – 6 and -10. The drivers for negative views are false news, bias, sensationalised stories, pushing a political agenda and too much advertising.

It has become a cliché to say the ABC is biased. The claim is repeated endlessly in the commercial media and by the Coalition MPs, who run campaigns on the basis of slogans, and who complain regularly about the treatment of the government on ABC news and current affairs. They work on the assumption that if you say it often enough people will believe it. But trust is not born from slogans.

It really doesn’t matter what the commentariat – conservatives like Gerard Henderson  and  Andrew Bolt or ‘liberals’ like Paul Barry or Chas Licciardello –assert as opinion, for trust is not formed by opinion pieces. It is built up over time.

The ABC has been there since 1932; television since 1956, and there is a history to review and a record to examine. The public has had a lifetime to evaluate the ABC. The public broadcaster openly examines the accusations of bias made against it on its own channels and invites detractors on air to express critiques. It publishes complaints against it, along with its editorial policy. It attempts to provide ‘balance’ – an absurd concept when someone like One Nation Senator Malcolm Roberts is given equal time to refute the facts of climate science with physicist Brian Cox. Should a creationist, terrorist, fascist, racist or misogynist expect time to promote their ignorance, prejudice and disruption on a public broadcaster? Lines have to be drawn in civilized debate and the professional journalists at the ABC are there to make such decisions. In the end the public makes its own judgment, as shown by this survey.

Based on its record of performance the public has judged Facebook to be untrustworthy. The 500+ billion dollar company with its 2.2 billion active monthly users is at the centre of a series of major scandals from Russian electoral interference to the Cambridge Analytica data breach. It is not only the fact that Facebook has refused to characterize the hoovering up of the personal information of more than 87 million users and their ‘friends’ as a security breach, but it has  stuck its head firmly in the sand, in denial and evasion. So investors are agitating for change at the top.

Trust is not about larger numbers and higher ratings, which the commercial networks argue mean the public prefers them to the ABC. The fact that viewers watch reality television and buy the Murdoch press for the sporting news, or go on social media to play games or communicate with friends is not a measure of trust. Children don’t want to spend all their time with their parents; they want to go out to play and have fun, but when in need they turn back quickly to those they trust, their parents and friends.

Some involved in the current debate about the value of the ABC argue the broadcaster should not be speaking up for itself. But in principle, the argument is the same as the child bullied in the schoolyard: they must learn to stand up for themselves. The ABC should and it must do this. It has a record of achievements to defend, policies to make public: the Board, the Managing Director and the staff must speak out loudly and proudly. The public, who trust the ABC, want to hear that defense of their institution. They can and will attend rallies, but the current attack on this highly valued public institution is so vicious, it cannot be ignored. The Prime Minister, Minister Fifield and Pauline Hanson want to see the ABC hemorrhaging from the endless cuts being delivered. They want to see the ABC intimidated; they want it to die with a whimper.

This survey sends a message. The public don’t trust the political institution the politicians represent; they trust the ABC. So hands off, Malcolm Turnbull; you continue this fight at your political peril for trust is a social phenomenon, not just a personal feeling. Once people lose trust in institutions that lack integrity, lie and distort the truth, the whole society is under threat. We all, especially the government, should be grateful we still have one public institution – the ABC -in which most people do have trust.

Patricia Edgar is a media sociologist.


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