The Trust Double Standard: An Interview with Gavin Esler

Posted by Merlin Beyts | 11-Nov-2019 17:37:17

We spoke to Gavin Esler, former host of Newsnight and author of "Lessons from the Top", about what "trust" means in business and politics today. Is there a double standard?

If you'd like to hear more, join us at our next event in partnership with IBM, The Future-Proof Business, on 5 December.  

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Trust. As Forbes’ Dennis Jaffe says, “trust is hard to define, but we do know when it’s lost”.1 It’s hard to disagree really. Put simply; there are people we trust and people we don’t but we tend not to vocalise why or how we’ve come to that decision. It is in many ways innate.

There’s no doubt that trust is a vital aspect in our relationships; with our loved ones, the companies whose products we buy, the organisations we choose to do business with and the leaders we vote for. But how do we communicate that we’re worth trusting and how do we reinforce it?

We spoke to Gavin Esler – journalist, author and former Newsnight presenter – at Nimbus Ninety’s event “Cloud Goals: Mastering Multi-Cloud” at IBM, Southbank. When I asked him about what “trust” means today, he drew on his experience talking to some of the most prominent business and political leaders around the world to discuss how they build trust and why it’s important today.

Something he has noticed is the importance of story when attempting to build trust with others and that the best political and business leaders all “tell stories in the same way”. His book – “Lessons from the Top” – in which he covers conversations he’s had with numerous political leaders, gives a template for how these stories should be told. The template essentially reads: ”Who am I? Who are we (as an organisation or group)? And where is my leadership going to take us?”

It is those questions that leaders need people to buy into in order for them to be interested in the issue of their leadership. “It’s a form of salesmanship,” he explained, before alluding to a mantra of a relative of his – a successful salesman – who believes that “you sell yourself first, you sell the company second and you sell the product third”. In fact, on reflection, one may recall seeing countless advertisements from brands like Marks & Spencer’s, Coca-Cola and Ben & Jerry’s about the provenance of their organisations. There have even been stories fabricated for comic effect such as the “left twix/right twix” adverts. The classics are classics for a reason; they work, even if they need a tweak now and again.

Whatever story is being told, the storyteller must be consistent with their narrative, “Some of them [leaders] tell stories very badly [...] some leaders in business and politics tell stories where the gap between what they say and what they do is very large in which case they very often fail,” he relayed to me. Recalling a meeting he attended at a large organisation, he relays the tale of the CEO who proclaimed in the style of Ricky Gervais’s David Brent that the staff were the most important part of his business – only to fail to act in accordance with that very claim. One only has to recall the “Training” episode of The Office to realise how inconsistency between message and action can quickly turn a useful exercise into a farcical mélange of tone-deaf nonsense. 

In the midst of his current exploits speaking to leaders of businesses around the country, Esler has taken note of a clear double standard. He told me, “if you tell a lie and are found out in business, then you may lose the company and lose your job. And yet, we’re seeing in our public life the normalisation of lying where people in positions of political power are saying things we know to be not true and are not only getting away with it, but getting promoted.” 

These sentiments are poignant indeed in an era where according to Armando Iannucci, creator of satirical TV show “The Thick of It”, political satire is no longer necessary after the rise of Trump: “Just read him and you have found the joke about him. It comes out in what he says, which leaves people like me slightly redundant other than just to point it out.”2 Only a decade ago, “spin” was a key ingredient in politics and blatant lies told by politicians became “accidental untruths”. And if that proved insufficient, we would at least see the occasional resignation. Now, it seems that politicians can readily mislead the public during press conferences and interviews. Meanwhile, those who handle the products that only some of us buy are held to a higher standard than those who handle our government. And we seem to have placidly accepted this as par for the course.

Everyone reading this article has been affected by companies failing to conduct themselves in an ethical or trustworthy manner. So why do we trust businesses more than politicians? “We have to look at what’s happened to business culture in the past 10 years,” Esler said, “Since the 2008 financial crash there’s a lot more form-filling, there’s a lot more accountability, there are a lot more hoops that you have to go through”.

Essentially, they have to conduct themselves to higher ethical standards and as a result, we now feel like they merit our trust. Again, Esler’s comments ring true with other commentators, as Fortune’s Arthur Gensler claims that “trust and ethical behaviour go hand in hand”,3 while Gallup’s studies have shown that a company’s “ethical track record and the experiences of its customers and employees” is instrumental in evaluating its trustworthiness.4

Now, with Brexit looming on the ever-changing horizon, it has become hard to locate trustworthy sources of information. Every source’s opinions differ. Wealthy business owners claim that British business will boom as they move their factories abroad. Tabloid journals internally argue from page to page. To top it off, in 2016, Michael Gove (at the time Justice Secretary) declared that “people have had enough of experts”.5

Esler had a huge issue with this: “the denigration of expertise and experts is a real problem because Enlightenment values built Britain.” He went on to use the example of a virology expert arguing against someone who has simply “got an opinion” about measles vaccination. Anyone can have their own opinion on whatever topic they choose; it does not amount to a balanced debate. Simply having an opinion doesn’t equate to importance or relevance, and the volume at which that opinion is shouted certainly shouldn’t justify a platform to share it.

It’s a confusing period of time for us here in the UK. Those who we’ve entrusted with running our country have done little to deserve that trust, while the businesses we depend upon for economic stability are facing uncertain times. That combination, tied to the fact that the consumer doesn’t know who or where to get their information from, makes for a volatile and potentially dangerous scenario.

It is not an unsolvable problem though. Esler talks about the importance of setting goals and once again provides a useful template for success in this endeavour. First, work out the objective before moving on to the agenda and finally, the tactics. In other words; get your story straight. Esler gave me his number one tip for business leaders looking to succeed: “Be good at your business and tell people about it in a way that they understand”.

For businesses dealing with the issue of Brexit with not only the goal posts moving but the pitch and the corner flags as well, setting clear goals and communicating them effectively is a way of maintaining the trust of its staff and consumer base. Match that up with listening to the odd expert or two and the journey seems a lot less treacherous.  

If you'd like to hear more, join us at our next event in partnership with IBM, The Future-Proof Business, on 5 December.  

Learn More


  1. Jaffe, D., “The Essential Importance of Trust: How to Build it or Restore it,'' 5 December 2018. Forbes:
  2. Sanderson, D., “Rise of Trump makes satire unnecessary, says Armando Iannucci”, 1 October 2018. The Times:
  3. Gensler, A., “Trust is the Most Powerful Currency in Business”, 28 July 2015. Fortune:
  4.  Khoury, G. and Crabtree, S., “Are Businesses Worldwide Suffering from a Trust Crisis?”, 6 February 2019. Gallup:
  5. Mance, H., “Britain has had enough of experts, says Gove”, 3 June 2016. Financial Times:

Topics: Event reports

Written by Merlin Beyts

Merlin is the Research and Events Producer at Nimbus Ninety.

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