Alain de Botton’s newest book about the impact of news on our society has been generally panned by reviewers, who themselves have mostly been journalists. I don’t suppose de Botton expected anything else: asking a journalist to review a critique of journalism is much like asking a Jesuit to review a book by Richard Dawkins. The Jesuit might have some interesting things to say, but you know in advance where the weight of judgement’s going to lie.
The comparison is unfair because de Botton is consistently more interesting than Dawkins. Much of what he is saying is debatable, but that debate is a big part of what he’s trying to achieve. The questions he raises are good questions, not least, what is journalism for? de Botton takes a lofty view, arguing that journalism should (like art) be there to widen our understanding and imaginative sympathies, to make us better people, and in the process make our societies better places to live.
In this light journalism falls woefully short. de Botton suggests that part of the problem lies in the possibility journalists themselves don’t really know what they are doing or why they are doing it (very rarely is their work about holding the powerful to account, which in truth is quite a small part of what journalism can or should do).
In saying this, de Botton is alert to the phenomenon of news, the way it’s come to dominate so much of our lives. It’s like an omnivorous beast which needs to be fed. And while it claims so much of our attention, taking its place in the general torrent of information, it seems it has diminished our attention spans. This has proved pretty disastrous in politics, where politicians have colluded with journalists (usually advised by ex-journalists) in the shaping of the soundbite, at a stroke reducing political discussion to cliché and platitude, eliminating the possibility of nuance, or any admission of complexity in the case for a given action or judgement. Our politics have undoubtedly suffered, in what looks like an archetypical race to the bottom. It carries the usual irony of any race to the bottom, that nobody wants it, and yet it’s done in the name of giving people what they want.
Another way of framing de Botton’s fundamental question is to ask what we as a society need from journalism, not least because it seems likely that journalism as we know it will disappear in the next ten years. Or at least, printed newspapers will disappear. Predictions like this are always dangerous of course, because you can never tell how the flow of cause and effect will play out: the disappearance of printed newspapers might create an opportunity for new kinds of printed news media. All the same the writing is on the wall, otherwise known as smartphones and tablets, and it’s hard to see how printed papers will survive the vicious circle of falling circulations and collapsing advertising revenue.
News operations will move online, because increasingly online is where people expect to find and consume their news. It’s why all news operations are experimenting with their online presence, trying to ensure their survival, struggling with the reality of the Internet’s “everything should be free” culture as well as the difficulties of replicating old advertising models in a medium that’s unlike print or TV. It seems like this could be a good time to ask what we need from news, although for most of these organisations the answers are likely to reflect short and medium term commercial imperatives rather than de Botton’s bigger questions about whatever might make for a better society: the race to the bottom will continue.
Digital media bring different possibilities, not least the power to curate our own news feeds. The obvious concern here is that we will cocoon ourselves in a world we already know and which flatters our existing outlook. In truth this happens anyway: people reading the Daily Mail or Guardian are rarely looking to challenge their established assumptions. In theory the ability to follow links on the Internet could expose us to different viewpoints, though in practice this doesn’t happen often.
There may be a survival opportunity here. It’s been said often enough that we need trusted guides to the richness (and banality) of content out there on the interwebs. If we’re caught in a conflicted spiral of overwhelming content and limited time it might be that traditional papers can transform themselves into brokers of commissioned writing and other relevant pieces (the Guardian is probably the most advanced along this line). How all this will pan out in the future remains an open question.
In case we get too optimistic, let’s remember that de Botton is right to insist on the mostly negative and cheapening influence of the press on British society. It would be foolish to expect a transformation in the behaviour of the fourth estate as it tries to adjust to a changed landscape. If it’s too much to expect news media to lead demand, we need to see the difficulties of news as part of a bigger challenge about how we manage the fullness of information all around us. Above all this is an educational issue.
As I wrote in the third part of my extended blog about a new vision for education
“There’s no great value in seeking to inculcate any particular set of “facts” even through the secondary education phase. It’s a given that the system needs to nurture basic functional skills, but beyond this the underlying objective is to give learners a foundational sense of how the world is, what knowledge is “out there” and how they can take that information and deploy it through the evolving needs of their lives. It’s about nurturing the natural enthusiasm for learning carried by every infant, inspiring and exciting the continuing thirst for knowledge. It’s about laying firmer foundations for lifetime learning, which is what we need as individuals as well as in the changing world of work.”
Unfortunately current government ambitions to “improve” education are taking us in precisely the opposite direction. I’m generally sceptical of conspiracy theories, not least because they give too much credit to the intelligence of politicians, but if the Establishment itself has become so defensive that it wants to crush curiosity and capability in the general population, the emerging reactionary model for education will serve its desires very well.
In this light, subjects like media studies are not soft options at all. On the contrary Education Secretary Michael Gove’s vision of a patriotic history is about as soft an option as you can get. What we need in schools is a looser curriculum framework designed to widen experience and nurture critical thinking. Faced with critical readers the news media might finally give us the news we really need.
(nb de Botton gave a talk on his book this week at the RSA in London. I’ll post a link to the video as soon as it’s made available).