When too much news is bad news

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 February, 2014, 6:46pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 February, 2014, 6:46pm

The News: A User's Manual
by Alain De Botton
Pantheon Books
2.5 stars

Ben Richardson

Last week The Philosophers' Mail proclaimed, under its masthead: "We're a news organisation with a passionate belief that too much news is bad for you."

Noodling through other editions of the online newspaper, you can find an interview with David Beckham's soul, an article on Tamara Ecclestone, daughter of the Formula One supremo, Bernie, as a test case for capitalism, and a photo of One Direction heartthrob Harry Styles at the Mail's recent launch party with Alain De Botton, master of philosophical whimsy and brains behind the only global news outlet manned entirely by philosophers.

"There's something appealing in the idea that Styles does not just sing nice songs, but is also increasingly interested in philosophy," the newspaper says. "Celebrities are hugely powerful agents for getting us interested in things."

Why should they be the preserve of news organisations that use fame and sex to peddle dystopia? Why not use them to make the world a better place? "As revolutionaries well know, if you want to change the mentality of a country," De Botton writes in The News: A User's Manual, "you drive the tanks straight to the nerve centre of the body politic, the news HQ."

He has a point. Deng Xiaoping, as editor, rattled off 28 editions of Red Star, the party's mouthpiece, on the 10,000-kilometre Long March. The fear of words embedded with thoughts they can't control has tormented our leaders ever since.

"For all their talk of education, modern societies neglect to examine by far the most influential means by which their populations are educated," De Botton says. "Once our formal education has finished, the news is the teacher."

Societies are judged modern, he says, channelling Hegel, when "news replaces religion as our central source of guidance".

The Harrow- and Cambridge-educated De Botton sold two million copies of his first book, Essays in Love, penned at 23, an age some sceptics might regard as too young to know anything worth sharing on the subject. How Proust Can Change Your Life and The Architecture of Happiness are among bestsellers that followed.

His central creed has been dubbed the "philosophy of everyday life", a kind of thoughtfulness for the chattering classes.

News organisations should curate their content according to the national need, he says. National decline can be precipitated by "media-induced clinical depression". (It's unclear, in this globalised world, why he chooses "nation" as the unit of humanity.) Elsewhere, he writes of economic stories: "They tell us what is going on, but not with any conviction of what might or should happen." A perfect news service should operate with "an economic Utopia in mind".

A dangerous path to tread: you might come across that kind of thinking at the editorial meeting of The China Daily. Which is why half the consumers of news on the mainland get their fix through social media sites they judge more representative of reality. It's consumption that drives publishers.

De Botton says it might all be in the presentation. It's time to rip up the rule book and get people truly fired up about deep and meaningful.

"The first of these assumptions is that the single most important technical skill for every journalist to possess is the capacity to collect information accurately."

Clearly for a trader buying or selling a stock, getting the facts right is pretty important. But might artistic licence be taken to make stories more dramatic? De Botton argues that with a nip and tuck of the truth here and some writerly embellishments of the facts there, we'll get our readers engaged in famines and earthquakes in distant lands. But that's already happening in large parts of the media industry and the fact is, all reportage is, in the end, subjective.

De Botton's best moments are when he stops trying to prescribe fixes for an industry he clearly doesn't understand and instead chews over our reaction to celebrity, tragedy, envy, or the role and consumption of news itself. The trend towards personalised news internet searches, alerts, the twitterings of friends who tend, by definition, to be more like you than the global mean is a danger: "Left in charge of programming our own news, we risk cutting ourselves off from information that might be deeply important to our evolution."

My favourite idea in the book is that there should be room to tell the news in wholly new ways. Imagine a paper that viewed the protagonists as patients on a psychiatrist's couch: what would we make of Bo Xilai's claim at his trial to wear 50-year-old underwear? What would our couch make of the country's leadership?

The worst idea is that news should somehow be "nicer". The world is a brutal place. It's the role of news to shine bright lights into its darkest corners.

Still, it would be churlish to be too hard on De Botton for writing from a personal, ill-informed angle. After all, this book does what it says on the cover. It's not titled "The News: The Definitive Analysis by a Seasoned Practitioner". It is, he says, a "phenomenology of a set of encounters with the news".