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Thursday, February 20, 2014

The News: A User's Manual by Alain de Botton – digested read

Digested read - The News: A User's Manual by Alain de Botton 'Newspapers always ignore the really important celebrities – like Saint Gengulphus of Burgundy' … The News: A User's Manual by Alain de Botton. Illustration: Matt Blease

A newspaper doesn't come with instructions. At school, we are more likely to be taught the significance of Monet's use of colour than how to decode the Daily Mail website. Well, some of us are. And yet we consume news more avidly than ever. Why so? In the immediate vicinity of our north London cottage garden, all may be tranquil, yet the lure of background chaos is irresistible. Perhaps the answer is to be found in schadenfreude. We see a photograph of Sally Bercow kissing someone and rejoice in the knowledge that the mystery man isn't us.

It is early morning. Outside, commuters are struggling to get to work when the tube is on strike. I languidly put on a silk dressing gown and eat a breakfast of yogurt and granola. The newsfeed on my iPad tells me rent arrears are on the increase. Why should I care? Would we read Tolstoy if he had made Anna Karenina working class? The maid makes me another pot of coffee.

News organisations are coy about admitting that what they present us with are selective fragmented narratives. They claim to be objective, when none are. The problem isn't bias, it's the nature of bias. The politics of right wing and left wing are a meaningless cul-de-sac. We need a bias towards the beautiful and the majestic. More stories of the sublime, written by cultural commentators. How do we mostly interpret the world? Through the Hegelian dialectic of architecture. Where are most news organisations located? In buildings of staggering ugliness. Were News International to be relocated to the Rococo Basilica at Ottobeuren in Bavaria, then their news agenda would be infinitely improved. Here is a photo of the Rococo Basilica.

The two emotions on which the news plays are fear and anger. In so doing, it toys with our weak hold on perspective. Here we need to be mindful of Euclidean geometry. The recent news bulletins have been dominated by stories of flooding. And yet the damage is limited to a few villages in Somerset and Cornwall. The majority of us in London have been completely unaffected and are free to keep our lunch appointments, so what's the big deal? (Unless you are one of my friends with a second home in the west country, in which case your distress is perfectly understandable.) Here's a photograph of a hideous 1950s bungalow under water. Isn't it better if it falls down?

One of the main claims all newspapers make is that they enable people to make up their own minds. Yet Gustave Flaubert hated newspapers because he believed they prevented people from thinking for themselves. I feel the same way. From this, we can easily deduce that I might have written Madame Bovary had I been living in 19th-century France. Yet how often does this important fact make headlines?

Foreign news is so often reported as a series of wars, famines and earthquakes. I drop in for an hour to visit the Uganda desk at the BBC. The reporters are busying themselves with stories of petty corruption, while ignoring a new exhibition of a minor artist opening in Kampala. Thus the value of wide-ranging Ugandan discussions is lost.

What are we to make of economics? Not much. So let's move on to celebrity. It's become fashionable among my dinner companions to dismiss celebrity culture, but in so doing they let the illiterate determine the celebrity agenda. The broadsheet newspapers should be doing more to promote celebrities from whom we can learn and improve ourselves. Men such as St Gengulphus of Burgundy, the patron saint of difficult marriages.

It is easy to be overwhelmed by the news. The ancient Greeks set aside a week each year to watch the tragedies of Euripides. We should adopt a similar policy. We should save all the year's bad-news stories for bumper editions spread over seven days. That way, we might be instructed by them rather than defeated. For the other 51 weeks, there should be more stories about the wars that aren't taking place and the earthquakes that didn't happen. Therein lies happiness.

Digested read, digested: Bad news.

View the original article here