Saturday, 27 April 2013

No news is good news

Last week I was reminded of one of the things I'll be 'missing' by taking a month out to walk the hills and live in the open air: news. I'll be going for potentially days at a time without any access to information about 'what is going on in the world'. If WWIII breaks out, my first inkling could be a mushroom cloud on the horizon.

The thing that reminded me was a bit of debate in the Comment section of the Guardian last week. A Swiss novelist, Rolf Dobelli, wrote an essay on his website (reproduced in part on the Graun website) about his views on the dangers of obsessive and compulsive news consumption and why it's best to avoid news altogether. He has completely ignored news for four years. Not so much a diet as a new way of eating, if you will. Judging by the comments in response to the article, he struck a chord with many readers. Guardian journalist Madeleine Bunting hit back with an earnest riposte which didn't really address Dobelli's arguments and made me wonder if she'd read the original article properly.

Dobelli identifies a number of ways in which consuming news is bad for your mind, body and soul. It lacks the power to properly explain and explore; in the mainstream news media there is no depth or proper narrative, despite the absurd pomp and portentousness of the news bulletins (parodied so effectively by the man pictured above). It's almost a truism to observe that the lurid falsehoods will be splashed over the front page of the paper one day, the corrections tucked away on page 19 the next. There's often no follow-through: 'stories' swell like bubbles on the surface of a pond, quiver for a few moments, then pop! - gone without a trace, displaced by the next offering of froth. News is addictive, works like a drug, causes stress and anxiety and subsequent psychosomatic effects; it steals time, kills creativity, is largely irrelevant to most lives, and encourages passivity by focusing on things that the average Joe or Jane has no control over.

The possible link between news 'addiction' and depression - and the direction of any causation - is certainly worthy of further exploration.

I think there's little to disagree with in Dobelli's analysis. Moreover, going beyond what he argues, in the more you think about "news" and media and who owns it and controls it and who decides how and what in the world is presented to us and for whose ends... the more you feel yourself slipping down the proverbial rabbit hole. The question always to bear in mind: who benefits from me believing this? Anyone can understand that news media is a portal to a tightly-controlled and mediated worldview. The fundamentally dishonest way in which the media purports to present their news as objective is almost laughable. "Here are the most important things that happened in the world today, in descending order of importance. Don't worry, we'll explain it all for you as we go along...".

You could argue that the way to counteract mainstream media news is to turn instead to the proliferation of alternative news and comment and conspiracy on the internet. I think that's right to an extent, and nowadays there's no excuse for not questioning the mainstream framing of events. However, I know from experience (a morbid obsession with Bush, Blair & co's wicked machinations leading to the Iraq war) that researching the alternative view can be just as addictive and leave you feeling helpless and angry.

Yet news becomes ever-more in-your-face and unavoidable. Screens displaying rolling news proliferate like plate fungi in public and other shared spaces and in workplaces (1984's ubiquitous 'telescreens' seem to be becoming a reality). Every radio station is riddled with news bulletins. Free newspapers are thrust at you outside every tube station here in London.

Of course, the standard charge levelled at anyone who questions the value of this rising tide of babble and wants to switch it off or turn away from it, is 'escapist'. You are turning away from the world, abdicating responsibility, sticking your fingers in your ears and going 'la la la!'. But the irony is that by switching off the news, you're escaping from a fake, shallow world, and the only place to go is back into the real world of your own senses. By switching off the noise you might find that you already know everything you need to know about yourself and your world, that a million hours of current affairs on the TV could never bring you close to understanding.

So, being away from it all for a month doesn't bother me. In fact I'm looking forward to it: looking forward to a clearer calmer head, preoccupied with problems I can influence, and experiencing the world with nothing more than my own five senses.

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