Layer together the financial crash and great recession, the fallout of austerity measures on people and communities, the division unleashed by the Brexit referendum, and the tragedy and hardship created by Covid-19, it is perhaps little wonder that politicians and journalists find themselves in an environment of low public trust.
While people have been locked down, they have been tuning in. Watching the No 10 press conferences, checking the news sites and scrolling through social media for the latest developments. And here in the UK, adults are spending more than three and a half hours online each day, more than an hour longer than our neighbours in France and Germany.
Our Edelman Trust Barometer Spring update reveals that despite the public appetite for information – breaking news – only 1 in 4 of us trust the journalists reporting the news and only 45% of us trust the politicians that we hear talking. Amongst Brits, just 18% of us trust what we see on social media – amongst the lowest in the world. Moreover, 2 in 3 believe we’re in the midst of an infodemic – an overabundance of information, which includes the dissemination of inaccurate or misleading information.
When we dig deeper, we find that the UK has an even more profound trust problem. Of the 14 countries surveyed for the Spring Update of the Trust Barometer, the UK has the highest level of “trust inequality”.
What do we mean by this? We look at trust amongst the “informed public” – around a fifth of the population that are university-educated, earn higher incomes and regularly consume news – alongside every other group. While 70% of the “informed public” trust major institutions, the wider population are way down in this distrust zone with just 46% doing so. That’s a gap of 24 points. It’s a record trust gap for the UK and a world-leading position Britain would rather not find itself in.
So, why do we think we are we seeing this? Trust amongst the informed public has surged over the last six months as the vaccine rollout has built confidence in a recovery from the pandemic. But for those facing an uncertain future, trust has just about held steady at where it was during the height of the pandemic.
This trust gap is a product of the regional and systemic inequalities found across the UK. They were obvious pre-pandemic, but they are even starker now. It is clear the government is aware of these inequalities too, as it often speaks loudly about its ‘levelling up’ agenda targeted at the so-called ‘red wall’.
‘Building back better’ and post-pandemic recovery are critical tests for Johnson’s government. Yet, at the moment, a large number of people do not feel safe returning to normal activities like going to the office or using public transport – even amongst those who are fully vaccinated only 30% feel comfortable going to their workplace. This is hardly surprising when nearly 6 in 10 of Britons still feel they personally are in a pandemic mindset. That outlook has profoundly changed people’s fears: 59% worry that lost jobs will never return and 62% believe the pandemic has increased mental health problems.
So, what can politicians and government do? They will be asking us all to consider how to get back to “normal” economic activity over the coming months. They will want cities revived and people flowing again. While the commentariat may be willing to do this, they will be talking to a public who feel disconnected from the appeal to return to normal.
And yet, “return to normal” is likely to be the easy part of the communications challenge for government. COP26 and changes to meet the net zero target are coming rapidly down the path. 69% of people in the UK think that climate needs to be taken more seriously as a threat to human life. To quote the well-worn aphorism, the public agree that “something must be done”.
Those changes will be radical and transformative. Not just electric vehicles on every street, but new heating systems in every house and changes to the food we buy in our supermarkets. We all have to drastically alter the way we live our lives.
Building back better, returning economic activity to pre-pandemic levels, steering a nation to net zero. These are all huge opportunities for the politician who can close that trust gap by properly levelling-up and getting the public to believe in a positive path forward. But who will grab that chance?