Heather Brooke

Stop the Press

The News: A User’s Manual

By

Hamish Hamilton 267pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

Here is today’s top story from the Alain de Botton newsroom. In Bedford, youths have vandalised a bus shelter. In order to convey the full scale of human drama, de Botton suggests the headline: ‘The Difficulties Faced by Liberal Secular Societies Trying to Instil Moral Behaviour without the Help of Religion’. If that’s your idea of a must-read story then you’ll enjoy hearing more ways de Botton wants to change the news. Instead of lifestyle sections such as Dining, Travel, Technology and Fashion, he suggests Conviviality, Calm, Resilience and Rationality. This is to help the suffering souls who read consumer news find the object that will best make them happy.

There are to be no bad book reviews (just as well if he continues to write books like this). Instead arts journalists should see their role not so much as curators of quality, but rather psychological pharmacists ‘dispensing mankind’s most powerful therapeutic medicine’. Investigative journalists should stop their obsessive focus on exposing corruption and, instead, ‘start with an all-encompassing interest in the full range of factors that sabotage group and individual existence’. Whatever that means. Their reporting should be done in the manner of Big Brother, with ‘the ambition to help the nation to flourish’. Herein lies the first of two fundamental fallacies of de Botton’s view of news – that the media is a united and powerful modern-day illuminati with a messianic ability to influence and control public thought.

This is not a new theory. It was most vocally propounded ten years ago by John Lloyd in his book What the Media are Doing to Our Politics. At least Lloyd put forward some evidence for his claim. There is none in de Botton’s book. He cites Hegel, who believed societies become modern when news replaces religion as the central source of guidance and authority. But we have to take it on trust that ‘in the developed economies, the news now occupies a position of power at least equal to that formerly enjoyed by the faiths’; and that it ‘also demands that we approach it with some of the same deferential expectations we would once have harboured of the faiths’. Nor does he convince when he claims that news organisations ‘wield infinitely greater influence over us than any academic institution can’.

This view finds favour uniquely in England. Behind it lies the cry of a once-powerful elite, angry that its monopoly on telling people what to think is vanishing as information is democratised. The press is powerful where the common man is powerful. It appears some view the idea of the masses thinking without the guidance of an elite an abomination. Hence the subtitle of de Botton’s book: ‘A User’s Manual’. If we must read the news at least let him tell us how to do it.

This theory of an all-powerful media also ignores the hard reality that the most influential news outlets have failing business models. Digitisation has meant a proliferation of competing voices. We live in the age of information and so we should, as a society, learn how information is processed. In much the same way that Eastern Bloc countries had to quickly learn about money when they entered the free market, so consumers of news need to learn how to evaluate information and data. What is propaganda and what is verifiable fact? They will not learn that here. A better option would be Flat Earth News by Nick Davies or, for a hint of the future, to follow the media ventures of Pierre Omidyar or Jeff Bezos.

The second fundamental flaw of this book is de Botton’s desire for news to be more like art. He wants political news to read like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Fortunately (or not, depending on how you like your politics), politicians do not normally kill each other. There’s the rub. Art is a manipulation of fictional elements such as events, personality, character and dialogue to create a unified whole that hopefully gives insight into a universal truth. The news cannot, by its very nature, provide unity and wholeness. It can only ever present a snapshot in time. Journalists often write books after an event has passed, but when news is news, the participants’ characters aren’t usually known, certainly not to the degree an author needs to understand them, and the sequence of events is still under debate.

The danger is that de Botton appears to want reporters to make the facts fit in the manner of Jayson Blair, the reporter fired from the New York Times for fabrication. Certainly there are some reporters who believe that if a story is too good it must be true. Audiences, however, usually prefer reporters to utilise their creativity in novels or films rather than newsrooms.

The book has a nice cover, embossed with a pretty Art Deco design and fancy gold leaf. Inside is where trouble lurks. Photographs are reproduced so badly that the features referred to can’t be made out. Red is used willy-nilly. It’s like reading a pompous version of Guido Fawkes’s political blog, though he at least restricts the red type to important points or punch lines.

Overall The News reads like the sort of journal a writer might keep by his bed to jot down ideas and musings as they occur, and the first chapter opens in such a manner: ‘It is early morning and, still in bed, one reaches for a screen and navigates to the news.’ For most writers, the journal is the first stage in the writing process. The ideas are then worked upon with vigour and research to craft either a well-reasoned and robust treatise or at least something entertaining. This book is neither of those.

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