OPINION: Losing faith

Lack of transparency and attempts to politicise local media are not helping build public trust in the States. Tom Rylatt argues that a continuation of this rhetoric will cause significant damage which may be irreparable.

Future barrister Tom Rylatt gives his views on the state of the States (29894434)
Future barrister Tom Rylatt gives his views on the state of the States (29894434)

The British Social Attitudes survey in 2019 found that only 15% of Brits said they trust the government either ‘most of the time’ or ‘just about always’ – the lowest level recorded by the pollster in more than 40 years.

In the USA in a recent Reuters Institute report only 29% of people said they trusted the news.

The development of anti-vaxxers, flat earthers, climate change deniers and insurrectionists points to an alarming global trend – one in which public trust in government and media is steadily eroding.

OECD findings show that government principles such as integrity and openness of institutions are ‘strong predictors of public trust’. Unfortunately, seasoned local politicians have also risked damaging the integrity and openness of our institutions – not through the customary dilly dallying that elicits choruses of ‘Oh the bl**dy States again’ – but through appearing to show active disregard for basic democratic ideals.

A debate earlier this year saw Deputy Peter Ferbrache declare that no one is interested in a Freedom of Information Law, as the States is already ‘open, transparent and ethical’, only to be contradicted in the same debate by Deputy Al Brouard, who said: ‘I don’t know where I signed up to openness and transparency [when becoming a deputy]’.

Some weeks later, Deputy Ferbrache and a significant majority then voted to suspend a colleague for the type of unethical behaviour we were assured we need not worry about. This series of events underlined why deputies are elected to show us these qualities, not just assure us of them.

Several deputies have accused the Guernsey Press of a left-wing bias for allowing centre-left deputies to write columns and communicate their own perspectives despite the fact that deputies of the opposite political persuasion have also been offered their own space to air their views.

Politicising local media in such a disingenuous way only serves to cultivate distrust where there is no basis for it.

In the same States debate, the idea of erecting a paywall between our government and the media was touted, effectively suggesting that media outlets should have to pay for States information.

Deputy Ferbrache and Deputy Brouard both suggested that if the press wanted information, they should be given it ‘but they are a commercial entity, they should pay for it’. Running the island as Guernsey inc. only carries so much populist charm until it’s suggested to monetise information the public are entitled to and already paid for.

Shouting bias, being contradicted on basic principles and then advocating for a paywall between the States and the media is a recipe for further erosion of trust in both the government and its main conduit.

In an age of collapsing institutional trust, copying politicians from further afield, who politicise the media, will only move us closer to the painfully polarised position that countries like the United States find themselves in.

In short, ‘build a wall and make the media pay for it’ is not the way to make Guernsey great again.

I do not want this column to appear as a political pile-on or a cheap shot at our Chief Minister and deputies aligned with him. Relative to the rest of the world, we have a friendly and agreeable way of doing politics. That should not be tossed away lightly.

We should not call out politicians just because it is popular but because their words or actions warrant it. A continuation of the States’ rhetoric will cause further damage – damage that is not easily repaired. I strongly believe it needs to be vigorously rejected.

The chipping away of public trust in institutions and people losing faith in the word of their government and media – previously the purview of bigger nations than Guernsey – are slowly appearing in the Channel Islands.

A meander down the comment sections of Facebook page Guernsey People Have Your Say shows an undercurrent of support for anti-vax theories and crackpot conspiracies.

The Channel Island treasure, Gary Burgess, received a three-page letter threatening legal action for merely reporting on the efficacy of vaccines, labelling him ‘dangerous’ and ‘in the pocket of big pharma’. It seems vacuous threats of legal action are in vogue this summer.

A new publication called The Rock is in the islands spreading unverified Covid information claiming there is no pandemic. We had campaigns in our recent election where would-be deputies fuelled institutional distrust and a now-elected deputy also fostered the idea of endemic States political abuses in their manifesto, claiming they were ‘just the tip of the iceberg’.

It’s clear the actions of a few deputies will not lead to some local USA-style insurrection. We didn’t see Deputy St Pier direct his supporters to storm the Royal Court crying of a stolen P&R vote and I did not expect chants of ‘stop the steal’ after the Vale douzaine election. However, when ‘fake news’ and alternative truths course through our timelines and infect social media feeds, we do not need to add fuel to a fire that we don’t quite know how to put out yet.

For many people losing faith in our institutions, the line between truth and fiction has become increasingly blurred, but what is clearer than ever is that trust in our institutions is not a currency that can be spent frivolously or a confidence we can betray cheaply.

Guernsey had a world-beating Covid response because – along with the eye-watering fines – there was a public willingness to trust in, and listen to, our leaders. Should we ever again need the CCA, or a body with similar delegated power, public trust is an asset we cannot and will not be able to live without.

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