Not the news

February 13, 2020

The_Times_04_09_39_460    I know I’m not the only person who’s concerned about what’s tritely labelled ‘fake news’. I’ve tried to think through what is actually going on, from the perspective of someone who’s kept himself well-informed over a lifetime.

My interaction with news dates from my earliest years. We took the Daily Mail at home, and listened to the news on the BBC Home Service. That was what was available all those years ago. My earliest memories are of my parents’ anxious faces as they listened to the news of the Cuban missile crisis, their shock at President Kennedy’s assassination, which came in a newsflash just as we children were being sent off to bed, and the news of the death of Pope John XXIII.

I was fascinated by other newspapers and regularly took myself off to the reading room of Stamford Public Library to leaf through the Times and the Daily Telegraph, and take in The Christian Science Monitor (which arrived there daily) and India News. At boarding school we read the Times and the Guardian, and the latter soon became my lifelong newspaper of choice. And when we finally got a television at home, we watched the news.

The thing was, in those days you couldn’t really avoid the news. Most households took a daily paper, often two on Sundays: we took the Sunday Pictorial (which eventually became the Sunday Mirror) and the News of the World, until our mother vetoed it because of its salaciousness. If you paid money for a newspaper, you read it, or much of it, and were consequently reasonably informed. If you listened to the wireless (I love that word!) you got the news whenever it came along. And there were regular news bulletins on the TV, too.

Now, think through what has changed. There are so many TV and radio channels where there are no news bulletins. There are enough TV and radio channels for enough people to avoid the news completely, and if you consume your music through apps like Spotify, there’s no news, just like there’s none on Netflix and other streaming TV channels.

The internet has massacred the printed newspaper: papers like the Mirror, Sun, Daily Express that used to sell four or five million copies a day now sell a tenth of that number. People do not read newspapers, by and large. News has migrated to the internet, and most people’s expectations are that it will be free. I do not pay £2.20 a day for a printed newspaper any more, and haven’t done for years. Some newspapers have paywalls; I don’t bother. So even though I have a wealth of free news available to me, somehow I am less informed, because I don’t read everything in that day’s Guardian – I don’t even know the totality of what’s in it. I skim, superficially, like a wasp – because it’s free, it has less value, less significance. Interestingly, the printed news and analysis I pay 5.40€ per month for in Le Monde Diplomatique, I still read from cover-to-cover.

News has become more trivial, more personality focused. Is this perhaps the result of the changes I’ve outlined above? I think the two phenomena are linked. I’ll listen to radio news in the car while I’m driving, for as long as I can bear it, but I don’t bother with television news any more.

So, I consider myself pretty well-informed, and yet I’m clear that I graze the news. I’ll also admit this is partly an age thing: I’ve seen a lot of it before, and I know that my opinions and actions aren’t really going to make any difference in what’s left of my lifetime. What about the millions who avoid the news almost entirely?

Newspapers have no obligation to be objective, and so news and commentary or opinion pieces have long been jumbled together. The terrestrial TV stations in the UK are by law obliged to be politically balanced or impartial. Social media can do what it likes, and we know where that has taken us: anyone can post anything they like, pretty much, truth or lies, and nobody can do much about it. For all their hand-wringing pieties, the US giants of social media don’t really have a clue what goes on on their platforms, nor do they care as long as the bucks continue to pour in.

Somewhere it seems to me that all of this ought to matter deeply, to concern all of us if participating in a democracy means anything to us. And yet, apart from a relatively small number, it really doesn’t. And there are plenty of people, organisations and companies who will do very well indeed as democracy dies. It’s not that I think that as a society we used to be well-informed, just that now I feel we are much less informed, and also much more susceptible to ignorance and disinformation. And that cannot end well. Nor do I have a realistic solution to offer.

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