de Botton & misreading “The News”

Posted by RDN under On books on 3 February 2014

I have disagreed with most of what I have read of Alain de Botton’s work over the years and am not likely to read his latest, The News: A user’s manual. In case you do, here is my take on what I understand him to be saying, so you can judge for yourself. In other words, here’s a user’s manual to his book.

Mr de Botton’s big thesis seems to be that the news is about helping us help society get better all the time. This is one moralist’s view of the news. I am also a moralist, and I think it is wrong. (So does David Aaronovitch, I  gather from his interesting review in The Times.) For me, the news is about satisfying the customers who pay for it or mandate it. So often it will do no more than satisfy curiosity.  Some news will have grander objectives, and be found in the BBC, or the Guardian, whose objectives carry their own dangers, and especially if they were to be universalised.

Mr de Botton worries that the good sort of news will often be confined to powerless minorities, such as – he seems to imply – those who read the Guardian. Democracy requires that we put a better sort of news in the hands of wider audiences. Well, that is what the BBC does as a mandated priority, and what all broadcasters are mandated to do to some extent. If you like Channel 4 News, for instance, you may say it is a triumph of Mr de Botton’s agenda. I get the ipression that Mr de Botton wishes the Guardian would broaden its appeal so as to attract lesser mortals such as Mail readers. But – to be cheap about it – Disneyfying the Guardian wouldn’t make it appeal to the Mail reader and would alienate the Guardian‘s. I don’t see that Mr de Botton can have any effect on the Mail, which is not merely an antidote to C4 News and the Guardian, but – actually – a necessary one.

(In passing, I note that Mr De Botton would like TV news to take us to emotionally engaging parts of difficult foreign news stories, rather than give us disembodied facts. For my part I am bored to tears with being taken to the micro-story of suffering villagers, whose conditions I can easily imagine. I want to be taken to the high ground of the situation, so I can understand why the hell ghastly things are being unleashed “on the ground”.)

Now of course, consumers of news ought to try to avoid living solely within their own biases. (It is a pretty obvious tenet of human life that one should get out of one’s comfort zone.) Mr de Botton has argued that biases matter, and can be good, but that they ought to be – here’s the bit which I think is really dangerous – “the right biases”. The point about biases is that they do good by fighting each other. Having one “good” bias is the same as having an orthodoxy, and that comes close to shutting down argument. Dictatorship lies that way.

Mr de Botton seems to worry that the masses don’t get serious or good news and that they can somehow be induced to consume more of it. I am almost sure this means that they ought, in his view, to be consuming lots of good, committed, serious, “liberal”, news.

I don’t think he has much to worry about. Isn’t it likely that the people who matter do get a huge amount of excellent news, and that it is good partly because it hones itself in battle? The “right” and the “left” and zillions of fractured, overlapping biases, evidence  and narratives are rattling around the heads of those who drive and decide almost everything in society. We can worry that this or that orthodoxy seems to grip too many of them at any one time (I have set my face against the “liberal” hegemony for years, but its influence is waning now and I think my work is done).

We can worry that masses of the young don’t engage in this wrestling match, but I am not at all sure that this is an accurate view. In any case, provided that they understand that only informed people can be much use to decision-making, it may not matter much whether everyone consumes huge amounts of information provided that they consume just enough wisely  to nominate the right sorts of people to run the place. This is called representative democracy.

It may be that there is some sort of new Athens on the internet horizon, in which all citizens know enough to run a hands-on democratic community. Maybe some sort of Crowd Wisdom and constant referendum will emerge. I doubt it, but what do I know? For now, I think we need to see the news (and its more considered, longer-term cousin, “current affairs”) as a marketplace, just as democracy is. I mean that people are free to choose and they need a wide range of choices. They do all this amidst a good deal of clamour and competition. But I also mean that whilst preachers, do-gooders and educators all have a vital role, the news-stand – like the ballot-box – is a place where people can decide what they want and where they bring their prejudices as well as their aspirations to bear.

So for there to be a good news environment, and a good political environment, we do indeed need educated readers and voters. But they need to be educated in the sense of understanding how journalists and politicians seek to woo them; about the merits of a world in which people of talent and ambition both serve their readers and constituents and seek gratification for themselves; about wrestling with the prejudices they meet and form; about handling evidence.

Politicians and journalists (like actors) are not chosen on the same basis or for the same purpose as teachers or moralists. It would be a rum turn of events if Mr de Botton’s desire to see a livelier democracy led him to suppose that there should be more mandated or worthy, bossy-boots news rather than more choice. I should say that his is the latest of various voices which tend in this direction. John Lloyd, Onora O’Neill, Hacked-off, and many ex-journalists now teaching journalism, seem to subscribe to the idea of the journalist as the obligated citizen consciously serving society. I argue, rather, that this line would end up with a journalism whose essential dynamism is lost.






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