THE NATION WANTS TO KNOW
The news isn’t just about who we are but who we could be, says Alain de Botton
As revolutionaries well know, if you want to change the mentality of a country, you don’t head to the art gallery, the department of education or the homes of famous novelists; you drive the tanks straight to the nerve centre of the body politic, the news HQ. It’s a good thing Alain de Botton is not in India. He’d be confused about which news channel HQ he should send the revolutionaries to. That apart, de Botton’s thoughtful analysis of The News is subtitled A User’s Manual, and it really is. The pop philosopher shows us how news has become “the single most significant force setting the tone of public life and shaping our impressions of the community be- yond our own walls” and yet how appallingly little we know about how to consume it.
He may as well be talking of India as it is now with its raucous television channels, fierce newspapers and still vibrant news magazines in a plethora of languages. If elections are India’s religion, news is its church, with its pulpit thumpers, nutty evangelists and Sunday School preachers. Demonised by politicians when it turns uncomfortable, the news is Tony Blair’s feral beast. Or if you believe Arvind Kejriwal, it is a corporate pet dog, slavishly following India Inc’s agenda of wanting to rule the world.
de Botton is good to read not only because he makes the reader sound more intelligent—try sprinkling a conversation about the day’s head-
lines with idle chatter about perspective borrowed from Titian’s portrait of Gerolamo Barbarigo and context from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina— but also because he makes sociology fun. He also allows us to appreciate the tragedy behind crime, the reality behind grim faraway news, and the serious nature often of our celebrity news. Stars are like us! Should we care? Yes, we should, says de Botton, telling us why fame is as important as aspiration in the modern world. Which also explains why, he tells us almost slyly, ‘Duchess of Cambridge Due to Give Birth in July’ got 5.82 million hits on the BBC website and why ‘East DR Congo Faces Catastrophic Humanitarian Crisis’ got a mere 4,450 hits.
It is a book that every politician who rails against the media should read. de Botton argues that the media should treat itself not like an extended crime branch or a tax office but a government in exile, demanding from those in power the same standards it applies to itself—take that, Kapil Sibal. de Botton emphasises the role of cultural journalism as a trained practitioner of mass therapy and insists that a perfect news service should not just tell a nation of the economic principles that govern it but the Utopia it should aim at.
IF ELECTIONS ARE INDIA’S RELIGION, NEWS IS ITS CHURCH, WITH ITS PULPITTHUMPERS AND NUTTY EVANGELISTS.
de Botton restores to the reader the thrillingness of the whole enterprise of finding out who did what to whom and why. It tells us we are not just empty purveyors of gossip or obsessed addicts of numbers but citizens trying to make the best of a world we have inherited. It makes us feel good about ourselves, even when we are angry. “The news,” writes de Botton, “should help us in mourning the twisted nature of man and reconciling so to the difficulty of being able to imagine perfection while still not managing to secure it.”
It should also help us in appreciating what is good because we are not just about a “severed hand; a mutilated grandmother, three dead girls in a basement, embarrassment for a minister, trillions of debt, a double suicide at the railway station and a fatal five car crash by the coast”.
In de Botton’s world, journalists are not just paid media, to be abused when they don’t conform to expected notions of good public behaviour, and used when convenient. They are part chemists, part therapists, part librarians and part curators, describing, analysing and reporting the world we live in. de Botton travels to Sudan in the book to tell us why the reporting of foreign news need not be prosaic. In a week that BJP has unleashed its prime ministerial candidate in the field in Varanasi, politics in India is light years away from being predictable.
THE NEWS: A User’s Manual by Alain de Botton Hamish Hamilton Price: RS 699 Pages: 267