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The News: A User's Manual
Alain de Botton
It is a characteristic of any trade that however much its practitioners might fight among themselves, they are never so united as when an outsider questions their collective competence. So if this review seems distinctly chilly towards Alain de Botton's The News, view it as the prickly defensiveness of a longtime British newspaper hand and former editor bridling at intelligent criticism of the trade he loves.
De Botton aims to deconstruct 'the news' and suggest how its presentation might be improved. His starting position is that the news business is 'committed to implying that it is better to have a shaky and partial grasp of a subject this minute than to wait for a more secure and comprehensive understanding somewhere down the line'. Well, yes, that's why we call it news. Besides, papers such as The Sunday Times and a number of current affairs magazines do the comprehensive treatment as well: but de Botton talks about the entire industry as if it were homogenous. It is extraordinarily diverse, more so than ever.
As a well-travelled man, the author is especially critical of newspapers' coverage of foreign countries. While acknowledging it is a struggle to capture the attention of a largely parochial audience, he suggests one reason is that 'the [foreign] news isn't being presented to us in a compelling enough way'. Again, and without wishing to seem unduly defensive of this newspaper, that is an ignorant slur on the extraordinary skill and courage of reporters such as Hala Jaber and Christina Lamb (not to mention Marie Colvin, who lost her life bringing readers the compelling facts about the conflict in Syria).
De Botton, to be fair, makes the more subtle point that we seem only to read about faraway countries when there is some terrible massacre going on. This is part of his wider critique that news seems always to be about extremes, and thus 'our impressions of what other people are like, largely formed by news bulletins, can inspire the conclusion that everyone must be either a murderer or a paedophile'. Yet even the most gullible reader of the most sensationalist tabloid must realise this is not the case.
Newspapers certainly distort reality, but readers do not labour under the misapprehension that they are reading the unmediated absolute truth. They are as cynical about us as they are about politicians, if not more so.
De Botton writes, as if revealing a hidden truth, that 'the stories we take in were decided not by supernatural decree after a conclave of angels but by a group of usually rather weary and pressured editors struggling to assemble a plausible list of items in harried meetings'. Are there any readers who thought it was the other way around?
At times it appears de Botton - a notably elegant essayist - can't abide the fact that there are no reporters with the perceptions of a Tolstoy and no newspaper photographers with the eye of a Cartier-Bresson. Yet the work of the greatest artists is the result of an almost monastic solitariness. Newspapers are intensely collaborative enterprises, in which compromises between speed and quality are inevitable. They are also commercial enterprises, which - especially in the mass market - is why they will often fail lamentably to meet the high moral and literary standards de Botton demands. But among the countless news organisations he doesn't mention is the BBC and, within it, the World Service. There he will find more of the ethos he seeks.
That extraordinary corporation is just part of the remarkable kaleidoscope of the British news business, confronting the unprecedented, potentially destructive challenge of the internet with much more creativity than de Botton gives it credit. But as I say, this might all be dismissed as special pleading. So perhaps this newspaper should give him a job on the foreign desk: he'd write a better-informed book afterwards.
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(A Digested Read - The Guardian)
A newspaper doesn't come with instructions. At school, we are more likely to be taught the significance of Monet's use of colour than how to decode the Daily Mail website. Well, some of us are. And yet we consume news more avidly than ever. Why so? In the immediate vicinity of our north London cottage garden, all may be tranquil, yet the lure of background chaos is irresistible. Perhaps the answer is to be found in schadenfreude. We see a photograph of Sally Bercow kissing someone and rejoice in the knowledge that the mystery man isn't us.
It is early morning. Outside, commuters are struggling to get to work when the tube is on strike. I languidly put on a silk dressing gown and eat a breakfast of yogurt and granola. The newsfeed on my iPad tells me rent arrears are on the increase. Why should I care? Would we read Tolstoy if he had made Anna Karenina working class? The maid makes me another pot of coffee.
News organisations are coy about admitting that what they present us with are selective fragmented narratives. They claim to be objective, when none are. The problem isn't bias, it's the nature of bias. The politics of right wing and left wing are a meaningless cul-de-sac. We need a bias towards the beautiful and the majestic. More stories of the sublime, written by cultural commentators. How do we mostly interpret the world? Through the Hegelian dialectic of architecture. Where are most news organisations located? In buildings of staggering ugliness. Were News International to be relocated to the Rococo Basilica at Ottobeuren in Bavaria, then their news agenda would be infinitely improved. Here is a photo of the Rococo Basilica.
The two emotions on which the news plays are fear and anger. In so doing, it toys with our weak hold on perspective. Here we need to be mindful of Euclidean geometry. The recent news bulletins have been dominated by stories of flooding. And yet the damage is limited to a few villages in Somerset and Cornwall. The majority of us in London have been completely unaffected and are free to keep our lunch appointments, so what's the big deal? (Unless you are one of my friends with a second home in the west country, in which case your distress is perfectly understandable.) Here's a photograph of a hideous 1950s bungalow under water. Isn't it better if it falls down?
One of the main claims all newspapers make is that they enable people to make up their own minds. Yet Gustave Flaubert hated newspapers because he believed they prevented people from thinking for themselves. I feel the same way. From this, we can easily deduce that I might have written Madame Bovary had I been living in 19th-century France. Yet how often does this important fact make headlines?
Foreign news is so often reported as a series of wars, famines and earthquakes. I drop in for an hour to visit the Uganda desk at the BBC. The reporters are busying themselves with stories of petty corruption, while ignoring a new exhibition of a minor artist opening in Kampala. Thus the value of wide-ranging Ugandan discussions is lost.
What are we to make of economics? Not much. So let's move on to celebrity. It's become fashionable among my dinner companions to dismiss celebrity culture, but in so doing they let the illiterate determine the celebrity agenda. The broadsheet newspapers should be doing more to promote celebrities from whom we can learn and improve ourselves. Men such as St Gengulphus of Burgundy, the patron saint of difficult marriages.
It is easy to be overwhelmed by the news. The ancient Greeks set aside a week each year to watch the tragedies of Euripides. We should adopt a similar policy. We should save all the year's bad-news stories for bumper editions spread over seven days. That way, we might be instructed by them rather than defeated. For the other 51 weeks, there should be more stories about the wars that aren't taking place and the earthquakes that didn't happen. Therein lies happiness
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