Swiss show faith in government but distrust media

The Swiss trust their political system Keystone

Unlike many people around the world, the Swiss distrust their media and still believe in democratic institutions, according to a new global opinion poll.

This content was published on November 8, 2002 - 19:27

The findings, released by the World Economic Forum (WEF), form part of a worldwide survey of some 36,000 people in 47 countries.

The poll, entitled "Voice of the People", asked citizens to rate their level of trust in 17 different institutions.

More than two-thirds of Swiss respondents expressed reservations about the national media.

And while the Swiss echoed support for the United Nations and worldwide unease about the role of multinational companies, they stood out for their strong support for national political bodies.

Three in four Swiss believe their elected bodies are working in the country's best interests, in stark contrast to other countries where only half share their faith in democratic institutions.

However, when asked whether they trusted the national media to operate in Switzerland's best interests, 42 per cent said "not much", while 29 per cent said "not at all".

Only a quarter said they had "some faith" in the media, while three per cent said they had "a lot".

Press scandal

Peter Studer, president of the Swiss Press Council, blamed the negative response on a combination of deeply-entrenched public scepticism and the recent Borer/Ringier press scandal.

"The Swiss are sceptical by nature and have always been since 1291," Studer told swissinfo.

The so-called Borer affair erupted in May when the mass-market "SonntagsBlick" newspaper published claims that the former Swiss ambassador to Berlin, Thomas Borer, had engaged in an extra-marital affair - a story that was subsequently shown to be false.

"A German chief editor imported from Germany severely attacked [Borer], a well-known personality and a popular person, and succeeded in ending his career," said Studer.

"The Swiss public has emotionally taken a stand against this publishing house."

Studer said many Swiss were now well aware of the failure of the so-called "boulevard press" to respect the boundary between a person's privacy and public curiosity.

"The public has become sensitive to these questions, and I think that is reflected in this survey," added Studer.

Fresh debate

The Geneva-based WEF, which hosts an annual meeting of global leaders, hopes the survey will trigger fresh debate about the worldwide lack of trust in democratic institutions and large companies.

Klaus Schwab, WEF president, said the issue of trust – or the lack of it – was a major challenge for society.

“In the 30 years of the existence of the Forum, we probably have not dealt with such a critical issue on the relationship of institutions with society at large,” he said.

Trust will be the central theme of the WEF’s January gathering in Davos.

While the survey confirmed the view that national governments tend to get up most people’s noses, Switzerland presented a substantially different picture.

The Swiss – perhaps because of their system of direct democracy – firmly believe that their elected legislatures are working in the best interests of society.

Other institutions, such as the police, health care and education, were also highly ranked. This contrasted strongly with the general picture of global cynicism towards democratic institutions.

Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed felt their country was not “governed by the will of the people”.

Armed forces

The poll also revealed a very high level of trust in armed forces around the world. Some 59 per cent of Swiss citizens believe in their military - slightly less than the global average of 69 per cent.

The result is a blow for supporters of democracy in developing countries, where many believe the armed forces are the best institution to look after the interests of society.

However, while the WEF believes the findings "may be alarming", it says support for the military was especially strong in countries currently under a state of heightened alert, such as India, Israel, Pakistan and the United States.

Doug Millar, head of the polling specialists, Environics International, said the survey also indicated that increasing voter volatility around the world could be due to declining trust in democratic institutions and national leaders.

"Unless traditional institutions regenerate public trust, people will continue to search for new ways forward," said Millar.

"The real cost of inaction may be greater system instability and a growing mandate for non-governmental organisations and new political parties."

swissinfo, Jacob Greber

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