Philoso­pher’s user-friendly guide to news

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Mal­colm Forbes

The News: A User’s Man­ual

By Alain de Bot­ton Hamish Hamil­ton, 267pp, $29.99

FOR bet­ter or worse, by ac­ci­dent or grand de­sign, Alain de Bot­ton has be­come the people’s philoso­pher. This is bad if you want your phi­los­o­phy dealt with more cere­brally, good if you pre­fer a more ac­ces­si­ble ap­proach. In his best­selling books, de Bot­ton’s mind­mat­ter has com­prised topics as di­verse as art, ar­chi­tec­ture, re­li­gion, work and love.

The News: A User’s Man­ual is, in many ways, busi­ness as usual for the Swiss-Bri­tish au­thor. In­stead of dense philo­soph­i­cal navel­gaz­ing we get fo­cused, bite-sized vi­gnettes packed with di­gestible de­tail. As with How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997) and How to Think More about Sex (2012) the book is pre­sented as a mocked-up how-to/self-help guide with de Bot­ton as­sum­ing the role of guru. The trope may be a lit­tle shop­worn now but for­tu­nately the con­tent of ideas, anal­y­sis and ar­gu­ment pro­vides food for thought.

De Bot­ton’s start­ing point is a kind of mis­sion state­ment. This book is “a record, a phenomenol­ogy, of a set of en­coun­ters with the news’’ with a view to find­ing out what news is to­day and what it might one day be. (Shortly af­ter­wards, as if to make up for a short­fall in grav­i­tas, de Bot­ton pro­claims, a tad loftily, that his book is a “project’’.)

The News un­folds as a news­pa­per, with de Bot­ton’s chap­ters tak­ing the form of spe­cific sec­tions: Pol­i­tics, World News, Eco­nom­ics, and so on. Each chap­ter fea­tures a seg­ment from a real news story — an air crash, a mur­der, a celebrity in­ter­view — that de Bot­ton uses as a spring­board to ex­plore its wider pic­ture and eval­u­ate our emo­tive re­sponses.

The first of such re­sponses is bore­dom. Ap­par­ently we are com­pla­cent to­wards many news sto­ries be­cause we have read it all be­fore. De Bot­ton reels off a list of hum­drum head­lines be­fore hit­ting us with “Syd­ney Man Charged with Can­ni­bal­ism and In­cest’’. So be- gins a study of how head­lines are en­gi­neered to snag our in­ter­est. The more sin­is­ter corol­lary is how news has the ca­pac­ity to con­trol our feel­ings, stok­ing our fears and warp­ing our per­spec­tive, build­ing our hopes (anoint­ing a politi­cian as a vi­sion­ary) and later dash­ing them (feted politi­cian turns out to be flop).

Con­sump­tion of news is scru­ti­nised. Why, ac­cord­ing to daily fig­ures for the BBC news web­site, did the Duchess of Cam­bridge’s preg­nancy se­cure 5.82 mil­lion web­site hits but con­flict in the Congo fewer than 2000? De Bot­ton re­fuses to blame shal­low au­di­ences; rather, it is the fault of news agencies for fail­ing to present news in a com­pelling way.

This con­clu­sion al­lows de Bot­ton to dis­tin­guish be­tween “ig­no­rance’’ and “in­dif­fer­ence’’. He rel­ishes ab­stract head­ers. Sto­ries deal with ‘‘par­tic­u­lars’’ or ‘‘univer­sals’’. In a fas­ci­nat­ing sec­tion on news pho­to­graphs, he pro­poses most im­ages are of ‘‘cor­rob­o­ra­tion’’, con­firm­ing what we al­ready know, whereas the rarer, more sought-af­ter im­age of ‘‘rev­e­la­tion’’ ad­vances our knowl­edge.

The News is at its best when de Bot­ton’s philosophis­ing springs from un­likely sources (weather re­ports, stock­mar­ket trends, celebrity gos­sip) and poses big ques­tions: What should the news ideally be? Why do news or­gan­i­sa­tions fo­cus so much on evil and tragedy? He fre­quently sub­verts our as­sump­tions and in­vites us to think dif­fer­ently. Bias, we are told, can be healthy. Dull news is more dele­te­ri­ous than cen­sored news. Celebrity ad­mi­ra­tion can lead to self-bet­ter­ment.

How­ever, there are junc­tures where de Bot­ton’s state­ments are sweep­ing (“We are wary of any­thing ‘ex­otic’ now’’) and his find­ings blandly moral­is­tic (in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism ought to “try and im­prove things’’). Riffs on the pur­pose of art and pur­suit of fame while en­light­en­ing are off the beaten track.

The big­gest prob­lem, though, is his ten­dency to sub­stan­ti­ate points by as­sail­ing us with a mad­den­ing bar­rage of imag­i­nary news sto­ries: ‘‘Our na­tion isn’t just a sev­ered hand, a mu­ti­lated grand­mother, three dead girls in a base­ment, em­bar­rass­ment for a min­is­ter, tril­lions of debt, a dou­ble sui­cide’’ and on and on. Such itemis­ing il­lus­trates but also grates. His

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