Saturday, 8 July 2017

Managing the news

There's a line in Simon and Garfunkel's 1969 song The Only Living Boy in New York which goes

I get the news I need from the weather report

and I perfectly see what is meant by that. The BBC and other news agencies have to update their news reports throughout the day, and provide constant analyses of what's going on and how significant it is. The pressure on them to present interesting stories that will catch the public's attention must be immense. The outcome tends to be a relentless stream of shock headlines, creating an impression of disaster and despair - because the emphasis is on negative news, the sort that makes people stop what they're doing and wonder whether the end of the world is coming. No wonder that a lot of people shield themselves from this onslaught of gloom and doom, and ignore the news entirely, or give attention only to things that they are comfortable hearing about. Or indeed just get the weather report.

There is so much in the way of 'analysis' and 'personal views' and 'interviews with ordinary members of the public who are affected' and 'phone-ins from people who want to express an opinion on this' that it's hard to discern what is genuinely going on and whether any of it really matters. Frankly, someone's opinion, unless it is an expert opinion from somebody with a cool head and relevant background, is simply not worth having. Nor is news coverage of people being loud and emotional. Any public utterance from a politician will be designed simply to shape perceptions and buy time. In every country on the planet, the real events - the real items of news - the things that are eventually going to make a difference good or bad - are happening at a level so low down and hard to see that the news agencies won't detect it.

Of course it's worth looking at the TV screen if a natural disaster occurs. That's straightforward factual reporting of an important event. How can any news team misrepresent an erupting volcano, and lava flows, and ash falls? But afterwards I am suspicious about interviews with 'victims'. Some will be genuinely homeless, others simply on the make. I am completely cynical about where people's donations and UN relief end up. For many parts of the world, for many of the people there, a natural disaster is an opportunity to grab some of the cash that will waterfall in, and stash it away. It's human nature.

In fact I'd say that most of the events that take place, and the developments that are slowly taking shape, and the laws that actually get enacted, have their roots in human nature and the prevailing attitudes of the era. I'd go further and declare that - natural disasters apart - there is never any 'news' as such, just the maturing or culmination of some development that people really in the know have been watching for. On that basis, the shock headlines can be ignored. It's better to look at trends, and what's building up in the background, and make a considered guess as to where it will lead. In other words to anticipate what the news will be, before it happens.

I therefore feel it's the duty of every person to be well-informed. To be alert to what is going on, training themselves if need be to recognise signs and indications. To have as wide a general knowledge as possible. To be aware of what happened in the past, and the result then, as a guide to what may happen in the future. To get their head around fresh notions and discoveries, and consider their impact. To be adaptable to changing circumstances and changing social conditions, and not be a dinosaur. To practice being a good judge of what other people say, of 'official information', of 'reassurances'. It's impossible to do much to influence events, but entirely possible to see where things are going and plan accordingly.

This is advice and exhortation that most people won't listen to. In my recent travels I met and observed a lot of people who have shut down their brains and are going to sink if the future turns nasty. They live overweight, unhealthy lives with no culture, no ambition, no vision, and no wish to break away and improve themselves. I'm also assuming 'no money', but you can never tell about that. So many have ample income, but waste it. Or look affluent, but actually haven't a lot in the bank because they spend it all while they can.

A humdrum young couple in a dead-end Cumbrian coastal town, with two unplanned kids, aren't news and won't ever be news, unless they become victims of some development that they should have foreseen. Then they will complain loudly. It's dispiritingly inevitable. I suppose they are a metaphor for how Britain is being portrayed in the news just now: a  dustbin case, a country misled, mismanaged, gone to the dogs, and bound to get even worse because of Brexit. And the world half-poisoned and half-cooked, with madmen at the helm.

If you believe any of that, then you will make a point of watching, listening to, or reading the news with fear in your heart. It will be a necessary drug.

I reckon that's where the news agencies want to get you and me. Well, sorry, I'm not playing.

Yes, the weather report will do nicely.

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