Between the ages of say 17 and 54 I used to try to keep up with the news. I would either watch the TV news each night, or listen to Radio 4 news on waking up, or read the paper each day when I used to commute in London. It felt like the way I was connected to ‘reality’ (whatever that is!) A few years ago I stayed in New Zealand for six months and for various reasons was ‘disconnected’ from a regular dose of news.The result? A stronger sense of connection to the world, to other people, to nature. More happiness, more time. Less boredom on reading the same material over and over again (‘the body has been found in the suitcase. They found him with his trousers down. There’s less money around. There’s more money around.’)
Since that time I don’t waste my time trying to ‘keep up with the news’. When I’ve tried to talk about this, people think that this is some kind of avoidance behaviour on my part, and even socially irresponsible. How good it was to read the following article the other day, which I found in a fascinating collection of essays ‘The Idler 42: Smash the System.’ I contacted its author, David Bramwell, to see if it was on the net anywhere. It wasn’t, but he has kindly let me post it here. See if you agree with what it says!
NO NEWS IS GOOD NEWS
by David Bramwell
You know what my problem is? I watch too much news, man. That’s my problem, that’s why I’m so depressed all the time. I figured it out. I watch too much CNN, man… Watch CNN Headline News just for one hour and it’s the most depressing thing you’ll ever fucking do. ‘WAR, FAMINE, DEATH, AIDS, HOMELESS, RECESSION, DEPRESSION. WAR, FAMINE, DEATH, AIDS, HOMELESS …’ Then, you look out your window … Where’s all this shit happening?
It’s late in the evening and I’m at Victoria Station waiting for the train home to Brighton. Truth is, I just missed my connection; I’ve got an hour to kill. There’s nowhere to sit, nothing is open. My attention is helplessly drawn to the huge plasma screen above my head on which the giant headlines of the day alternate between: ‘Teenager killed in frenzied knife attack’ and ‘ Recession Looms.’
At my feet lie several discarded free London papers. ‘Gloomy Christmas due on High Street’ predicts the Metro. The London Paper’s headline is ‘Officer Jailed for Sex on the Job’. “Teen Father-to-be Hangs Himself” states another. I fight the impulse to pick them up and start flicking through and head into the night instead, to roam the streets. But even then there’s no escape. They’re on the A boards outside the newsagents; displayed on huge digital screens in the city. At home they stare me in the face when I walk into my local shop or service station. They’re on TV screens hung above the aisles of my local supermarket. They’re in the airports and on the planes. In Vegas it’s hard to escape the gambling machines; in England, it’s the headlines.
Commuter misery as snow brings London to a standstill
A few years ago I began an experiment. I unplugged the telly, stopped buying the daily papers (the Guardian usually) and gave up my habit of turning on Radio 4’s Today Program moments after tumbling out of bed. Not because I’d stopped caring about what was happening in the world, but because I had finally realised that, like Bill Hicks, the news seriously depressed me. Being spoon-fed a daily diet of joyless and discompassionate ‘facts’ by the media was taking its toll.
A friend once described a walk in the country as ‘nourishment for the soul.’ The news was having the opposite effect. I felt like it was corroding my soul, making me feel empty. The same question kept coming up again and again: when our lives are a fascinating jumble of beauty and horror, joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure, altruism and misanthropy, why does the news give precedence to misery, tragedy and scandal? Does it really have to be like a bleak soap opera, churning out the same miserable storylines?
And it wasn’t just tragedy, death, brutality and war that was getting me down, it was also the tedious degree of speculation, analysis and dissection that fills the papers and the airwaves. Does anyone actually enjoy tuning into Jeremy Vines whiny voice on Radio 2 as he encourages listeners to phone up and rant about the “latest outrage”? Who gets pleasure from the Today Programme except the politicians it holds court with? I love Radio 4 but those three hours of news and features in the morning seem to be a bubble of aggressive interviews with politicians over some indiscretion or other, tedious scrutiny of British Politics, the Iraq War and sport. And then one morning I quietly sobbed into my porridge when, after tuning in, I heard Beckham’s new tattoo being discussed. So I decided to take a holiday from the media-led news.
Of course some friends who are dedicated supporters of the press get annoyed with my attitude. How can I engage with the world if I don’t read the papers or watch the news on telly? Aren’t I just turning my back on reality? How can I even champion democracy if I’m not switched on?
All I knew was that, like the addict who needs to kick a bad habit, I wanted to be released from its grip. I wanted to belong to a world where the news of imminent snowfall was not simply gloom-laden but also acknowledged as a perfect opportunity to go sledging.
I won’t deny that this experiment continues to challenge me. I still can’t resist occasionally flicking through newspapers and weekend lifestyle magazines when at friend’s houses or killing time somewhere, but I do feel released from the grip of something cancerous. I have also spent a fair amount of time dwelling on the nature of news and our relationship to it. What follows are my own wholly subjective opinions on why I believe it’s OK to kick the habit…
If it bleeds, it leads
Newspapers like most businesses are here to make money. The more they sell the more money they make. And nothing sells better than scandal, tragedy and sex. The Daily Express has spent the last ten years writing any old garbage about Diana just to keep her in the headlines because they know it will help sales. But do we ever stop to question why this kind of stuff qualifies as news? And why do we care if some movie star gets caught with their pants down?
The latter comes down, I believe, to our religious heritage. Living in a culture still in the clutches of Christian mythology (even if, by and large, we’re non-believers), the continued taboo against sexual freedom has led to our current tabloid obsession. And what a hypocritical mix of titillation and self-righteous judgement it is too: boobs and thigh-high boots on one page, vilification of an actor for a paying for a blowjob on another. Some might argue that we now live in sexually liberated times; if so, why is there still oppression towards such age-old sexual practices as prostitution and transvestism? Why do we permit breasts on page three but censor erections? We might have commodified sex but we still have a deeply uncomfortable relationship with it, hence its power over us and predominance in the media. Isn’t it time to move on?
While most broadsheets may consider sex-scandals beneath them, they still bow down to the journalist maxim, ‘if it bleeds, it leads’. No surprise when you consider what a poor relationship we now have in the west with death and the destructive energies of life. We buy meat in packets and whisk away the dead to avoid undue embarrassment, while the powers of Health and Safety make it increasingly difficult for us to experience the thrill of feeling alive through risking death. The need to experience pain, tragedy and violence vicariously through computer games, soap operas and, of course, the news, is perhaps a reaction to the growing pressure to sanitise life. If our lives were less passive, our jobs more fulfilling and we worried less about a non-existent future, would we still crave those car-crash headlines?
The truth is out there
We might argue that we buy newspapers to learn the truth, but isn’t it fairer to say that we actually seek out the stories, headlines and papers that best reflect our own prejudices? The newspapers, like people, have their own personalities.
Of course the internet offers even better opportunities for re-enforcing prejudices. Only recently I was sat down by a friend in front of her computer and made to watch ‘reliable’ internet documentaries and information she had been collecting to prove that Bush’s own government were responsible for bombing the Twin Towers. Now personally I don’t buy into this story but my friend (a journalist of sorts) has spent a huge amount of time researching and amassing evidence and is extremely well-informed on the matter and believes she has the truth. I can’t help feeling that this is a news story she would like to believe, to re-enforce her belief that the Bush administration was corrupt and “evil”. I wonder how many of us would take interest or give credence to a news story that demonstrated a kind, loving or humble side to George Bush?
The sheer volume of paper that makes up your average weekend paper is ridiculous: TV guides, pull-outs, magazines and half a dozen specialist supplements that most of us barely glance through before discarding. I finally stopped buying the Guardian on a Saturday when I realised that all I was doing was throwing away the first half kilo of supplements, skimming through the guide, whinging about how crap the magazine was and finally settling down to do the crossword. I actually figured I’d be far better off buying Time Out each week and a book of Guardian crossword puzzles (so I did).
So why is it all there? The answer is, of course, money. Start a travel section and you can get advertising from the travel industry. Have a specialist food magazine and the advertorials will roll in. And how well-researched and considered is this stuff anyway?
The next time you’re flicking through a double page special that proclaims expert advice on “the ten best chippies in the UK”, or “the coolest bars in Europe”, ask yourself how much research or time a journalist is realistically able to put into a feature like this. I met a broadsheet journalist recently who wanted to pick my brains about Brighton for a 6-page weekend feature (I write a guidebook to the city). The following day he was on his way to Sweden to write a feature on the coolest things to do in Stockholm for the travel section. He’d never been before and had about 36 hours to do his research. ‘It’ll be the usual padding and bullshit’ he said, cynically.
Do we really need to be spoon-fed the latest bars, the latest clubs, the latest fashionable holiday resort in Croatia, the latest fashion accessories and the latest celebrity-endorsed product? Or the likes of the tacky free Xmas wrapping paper designed by Victoria Beckham that came with last Saturday’s Guardian (December 6th 2008)? Enough said.
But isn’t it still my duty as a champion of democracy to keep abreast with what’s happening in the world?
Look, despite ignoring the media-led news I still feel almost depressingly well-informed. There’s a serious recession on at the moment. How do I know? It’s on everybody’s lips. People are anxious, depressed and worried about the future and they’re talking about it. (Many for very good reasons, others simply because they’ve simply been told by the media to worry.) I’ve learned about the causes of this recession through a friend who’s an economist, been given advice on how to ride the storm from a financial expert (my brother-in-law) and I’ve discussed it at lengths with friends. Truth is, most of the important stuff in the news, the stuff that affects our lives directly, is information we share and discuss anyway. And this, I believe, is a healthier way to experience it. Friends’ opinions, like the papers, may be prejudiced, but that should naturally lead to debate and questioning, rather than passive consumption of information. Of course expecting to pick up the news from friends and colleagues is, as one person put it: “letting others do your dirty work.”
I admit my guilt on this one.
The Rise of Churnalism
I have tried, for the most part, to keep facts and figures out of this article and write from the heart. But I couldn’t write this without some reference to the book Flat Earth News by journalist Nick Davies, in which is offered overwhelming evidence that the papers regularly lie, misinform, fail to check facts and increasingly rely on PR agencies for their stories. And it’s not so much the tabloids Davies puts under the microscope (we already know their ‘facts’ are suspect, he argues) but the likes of the Guardian and Times. According to Davies’ book, news websites run by media firms recycle 50% of their stories from the two international wire agencies, Associated Press and Reuters; those run by internet firms recycle 85% of their stories from those two. Equally, a study by Cardiff University showed that nowadays 60% all home news stories come from wire agencies i.e. press releases. A mere 12% are sourced exclusively by journalists. It’s hard to avoid the evidence that increasingly, the news is manufactured as PR propaganda.
But I enjoy reading the papers
Then I wouldn’t dream of talking you out of your habit; the same goes for happy smokers.
OK, I’ve endured your polemic and am half-convinced, what do you suggest I do?
I don’t think there is an easy answer regarding our relationship with the news. I fully accept that in many ways, my attitude is irresponsible. Yet as there is little evidence to suggest that the media encourages compassion (“all paedophiles are monsters”) the bottom line for me is: how does our keeping up to date with the latest tragedy help change the world for the better? I firmly believe that nourishing our souls, kindness and re-asserting a faith in humanity are far more important issues. And so my answer would be to consider the following:
The NO NEWS manifesto
Read less news
Be more discerning about the kind of news you do buy into.
Never accept free handouts; they are, without exception, full of mindless churnalism, celebrity gossip and Daily Mail style scare-mongering.
If ploughing through the thinly-disguised consumerism of the weekend papers bores you, give it up.
If the radio in the morning depresses you, stick on your favourite album, a comedy show (Porridge will re-instate your faith in humanity), download a lecture, learn another language, a musical instrument, meditate, take a walk.
Throw away the telly; there’s nothing on.
But perhaps most importantly, if we could each find a way of increasing our tolerance and compassion for our fellow man through whatever means (our family, our community, our art, our work, our personal development etc), we’d be performing a duty far more important than keeping up with the news. We’d be re-dressing the balance, supporting the sweet idle life and bringing some joy back into the world.