Why are fear and distrust spiralling in twenty-first century Britain?

Anna Minton

9 October 2008

Discussion of social evils on a theme of ’distrusting and fearful society’ which argues that the cause is physical inequality and segregation, combined with a commercially driven media promoting fear.

Summary

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The JRF’s recent public consultation revealed a strong sense of unease about some of the changes shaping British society. This Viewpoint continues the discussion about modern ‘social evils’ on the theme of ‘distrusting and fearful society’. Anna Minton argues that the cause of growing fear and distrust is visible physical inequality and segregation in the environment, combined with a commercially driven media with a vested interest in promoting fear.

Key points

  • While crime has been falling steadily since 1995, the majority of Britons think it is rising. Liverpool is a classic example of a place where fear of crime rather than crime itself is the problem.
  • The evidence from around the world and from different historical periods shows that increasing levels of fear are the consequence of growing visible physical inequality and segregation in the environment.
  • International research has indicated links between higher levels of trust and better mental health in more equal societies, and greater levels of fear, distrust and poor mental health in societies with large wealth gaps.
  • The media, underpinned by commercial needs, has a very significant role to play in heightening the climate of fear, because stories which sell fear also sell newspapers.
  • Fear and distrust are linked, with research showing that levels of trust correlate with fear in society.
  • Increasingly stark segregation fuels a human tendency to surround oneself only with groups similar to oneself and perceive those who are different as dangerous.
  • Celebrity culture brings with it the artificial impression that we know people when we don’t and encourages the misplaced pursuit of perfection, part of a drive for perfect control which is unattainable.
  • Policy approaches tackle symptoms rather than causes, by focusing instead on higher security and punitive zero tolerance. This fails to lower crime and fails to reassure people, actually making them more scared and fuelling the cycle of fear further.
  • Small shifts in policy direction can make a difference to inequality. An awareness of the importance of ‘social disparagement’ might influence policy-makers towards approaches which undermine fear and promote trust.
  • If there is to be any chance of improving levels of trust between institutions and the public, the public service remit of media agencies (such as the BBC) needs to be properly supported and extended.

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