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Trust in Public Life

Panel discussion held on 10 November 2008 (venue: The British Academy). The event was convened and chaired by Peter Hennessy FBA, Queen Mary, University of London.

The panel discussed whether public trust in our major public institutions has fallen as much as is widely suggested, whether and why this matters, and if there are any remedies for arresting its decline.

Onora O'Neill, President of the British Academy. Onora O'Neill gave the Reith Lectures under the title A Question of Trust in 2002. She will argue that trust is too often seen merely as an attitude, rather than as evidence-based. Yet attitudes, whether suspicious or credulous, are not enough for placing or refusing trust intelligently. If we are to trust intelligently, we need relevant and intelligible evidence - but much of the evidence offered to support the placing of trust in institutions and professionals is unintelligible, because it is either hyper-complex (e.g. information on pensions) or simplified to the point of distortion (e.g. school league tables). She will consider whether more intelligently chosen information could support more intelligent placing and refusal of trust.

Mark Thompson, Director-General of the BBC. Mark Thompson became Director-General of the BBC in 2004 and has faced the twin challenges of restoring public trust in the corporation after the Hutton crisis and, more recently, renewing trust following a misleading trailer featuring the Queen and problems with on-air competitions. How does he define the role that trust plays in broadcasting and the media generally, and does he think that it has declined?

Lord Wilson of Dinton. Richard Wilson was Cabinet Secretary in the early years of the Blair government, from 1998 to 2002. He is well placed to judge whether there are lessons we can learn about restoring faith in our public institutions and will ask whether an element of mistrust, in moderation, may be inevitable and even healthy. Lord Wilson is now Master of Emmanuel College Cambridge and a non-executive director of BSkyB.

Professor Peter Hennessy FBA, formerly a distinguished journalist and now Attlee Professor of Contemporary British History at Queen Mary, University of London, introduces the panellists, chairs the discussion, and invites the audience to debate the issues raised.