Good News, Bad News

21 Mar

What we are given is not ‘the’ news, just ‘some‘ news.
– Alain de Botton

Sometimes the news can be plain tiring. It can feel like a constant roller coaster of fear mongering, being nasty to famous people, and vested interests pushing their views. Worse still, is the power the press wields over most politicians and their choices, essentially subverting our democracy. And the way some stories are prioritised over others is beyond me.

Innocent Or Guilty?

Pretty near the top of my list of problems is the way the media wields its power over people’s lives. While I am a staunch advocate of free speech, the British media is irresponsible in the way it vilifies people, particularly those accused of certain crimes. Publicising allegations of sexual or violent crimes forever tarnishes someone’s reputation. There are many examples of people whose lives have been ruined by such allegations, Christopher Jefferies being a sad example. There are too many other heartbreaking stories like this.

Alas mob rule is alive and well. Trial by media does occur and people’s lives are ruined by this. We have a fundamental rule in decent societies, that being “innocent until proven guilty“. We erode this at our collective cost.

The libel laws in this country may not be perfect but they are there for a good reason. Once a person’s reputation is ruined, so is their life; it can affect their job, their family and can exact a heavy psychological toll. In other more civilised countries, the press is not allowed to publicise allegations until a guilty verdict has been passed. Yes, people who transgress society’s rules may be held up to public view, but only if those accusations have been proved. I think people accused of serious crimes, particularly sexual crimes, should remain anonymous, as otherwise they are already punished, regardless of the final verdict.

The Leveson enquiry demonstrates very well the parlous state of the British press. Hugh Grant summed it up best in his statement. He easily demolishes the arguments many papers have for treating famous people like shit, doing things like breaking into people’s homes, or publishing false accusations about people and ruining their lives. Arguments such as “it’s in the public interest“: I have no interest what a politician does in his private life, much less a golfer. It’s none of my business and is certainly not in the interest of this member of the public. Such prurient attitudes belong in backward religious circles, not in real life. He ably dismisses the poor argument that all celebrities need the publicity good and bad, pointing out “for most people I know who are branded ‘celebrities’, the celebrity was not the end [in] itself. Those people do exist, but I would argue that they are in the minority. Most so-called ‘celebrities’ are just people who happened to become singers, or actors, or footballers, or whatever, and then also happened – through luck sometimes, but also sometimes hard work or talent – to become successful.

Sometimes I have the feeling the press sees a successful person, and are just waiting, like vultures, to pounce once they make the slightest mistake.

News vs Opinion

In the news, there is ostensibly a split between reports that inform us and opinion pieces. However when you start to look at news stories, the bias is usually fairly blatant. This can be seen in two ways.

First you see how different newspapers report the same story: a news story about Europe, for example, would be reported in a right-wing newspaper as another example of why the UK should leave the EU, and a left-leaning paper would hail it as another reason why staying in Europe is good for the UK.

Given how the same story can be reported so differently, I try to read papers and websites from different parts of the political spectrum, so I can get a clearer view of what is happening, and hopefully better understand the biases of all sides.

The second, more insidious way we see this is in the subtle use of language. When talking about a government supported by the West, say Israel or Saudi Arabia, reporters will talk about the president of the country, the secretary of state for defense and so on. But if it’s not currently in favour, then reports will talk of the ruler of the regime and his lieutenants.

I just saw one today: usually an American claim to be fighting terrorism is taken at face value, whereas when China made the same statement today, the word terrorism was used in quotes, implying they were using the word as a fig leaf to cover more nefarious behaviour. This was on the Al Jazeera English website which is usually a little better with that kind of thing.

Will Hutton says that the press “are not disinterested guardians of the public good. They, too, have political and social agendas. Nor are they guaranteed to behave ethically and professionally. Moreover, private power has become steadily more potent, more unaccountable and more willing than ever to exert overt political force“. He says their argument is not for “press freedom” but for “arbitrary press power“. The press clearly need to be regulated, and not by themselves!

Alternatives

There are people that see the negativity, and the destructive nature of much of the press and they have responded well.

Russell Howard’s Good News is a satirical comedy show with a happier-than-usual look at the news. It is ended each week with a piece called It’s Not All Doom And Gloom, which regularly shows some of the most beautiful and heart warming stories you’ll hear. I’ve often shed a tear watching them.

The Metro newspaper’s Good Deed Feed is a wonderful way for people to say thank you for the kindness of strangers in London, such as making sure lost wallets get back to their owners intact, or helping someone who has fallen over. When I read it I am genuinely inspired. Small acts of kindness can make a bigger difference than we realise.

There are websites that only publish positive news stories, such as Good Mood News. There are others too, one of which has a great quote from Dostoevsky:

Man is fond of counting his troubles, but he does not count his joys. If he counted them up as he ought to, he would see that every lot has enough happiness provided for it.

While nice story websites are encouraging and heart-warming, it seems they’re missing something. I’m not sure simply ignoring the bad stuff really addresses the problem. I wrote this post a year ago, but wasn’t so happy with these alternatives.

Until…

Man Writes Book

Step forward Alain de Botton. He wrote a book. In this lecture he gives an excellent overview of the book. I was nodding along and agreeing with him when I watched it. I appreciate he couldn’t hear me.

Two cool things came out of his book.

First, he wrote an excellent website, News Therapy, which gives good answers to a lot of the problems we feel when we consume news. I recommend you go see and click around.

Second, he and some philosopher friends have started up the Philosopher’s Mail, which I now read regularly. It’s a “news” website, where they write articles about the news stories of the day, however vacuous they may seem, but apply their philosophical wisdom to draw out encouraging and illuminating points about the human condition. They write stories about Taylor Swift’s legs and the queen, yet make rather profound statements about life, the universe and everything. And all in a nicely bite-sized and digestible format. You’ll notice it’s taking the mick out of the Daily Mail, parodying its style.

He saysFor too long, philosophers have been happy merely to be wise and right. This has offered them huge professional satisfaction but it has not influenced the course of society. The average work of philosophy currently reaches 300 people.” And now he has a much larger readership with this new project.

My favourite one this week is apt to this discussion: “Mean journalism has traded the truth for the satisfactions of cheap insult. … The only fruitful way to proceed is to be ‘nice': not in the sense of naive sentimentality but in the sense of wanting to enter into the mindset of another person, even one who deeply challenges your beliefs….we’ve unfortunately confused being nice with a couple of things we rightly fear: being naive and being weak. Listening carefully to what someone says, trying to see the world through their eyes, this has nothing at all to do with agreement.

They say that their aim is to be “nice’ with a purpose: to get to the truth. Meanness merely confirms prejudice. Niceness is a better scalpel.

Oh, and watch out for their weekend edition.

That’s it.

Have a nice day.

4 Responses to “Good News, Bad News”

  1. Rob Blakemore March 24, 2014 at 4:26 pm #

    I really enjoyed watching Hugh Grant whilst he was giving evidence to Hutton a few years ago. He was very effective in debunking the arguments put to him. He said that the biggest problem with the tabloid newspaper press is, “the conflation of fact with opinion”. I would agree.

    I have my own solution to offer – unlikely to ever be implemented!…

    Anything that the writer asserts as fact should be put in a different colour, and different font. That would allow the public to be informed of what’s actually being stated as fact by the writer. If the writer wants to state their opinion, or is unsure of the factual accuracy of a point, then it should be written in the normal font. This would allow even the casual reader to quickly ascertain what was opinion (most of it in a tabloid paper), from what is being stated as what actually happened.

    Newspapers should then be allowed to write almost whatever they like in the standard font. But scrutiny will be put to anything clearly labelled as “fact”. It would revolutionise the printed media, and lead to far greater public understanding… I’d love to see it implemented… and no doubt so would Hugh Grant!

    • 5i5i March 24, 2014 at 5:01 pm #

      I like the idea.

      If the “facts” were subject to a universally agreed set of rules this could work.

      Rules could include:
      – having 2 independent eyewitnesses for an event
      – a clear differentiation between what is a fact, what is opinion, and what is hearsay (avoiding epistemological discussions of course!)
      – etc.

      Thing is, there’s the letter, then the spirit of such a ruleset. Looking at the example I give above, they can still convey a “fact” with a lot of spin: “the president of the country said x” vs “the dictatorial ruler of the regime said x”. Both statements could be argued to be facts, but convey different levels of trust, and interpretation in what is being said.

      I guess that’s where we need a decent, independent regulator to enforce adherence to such rules.

  2. Jenkins1974 April 3, 2014 at 1:42 pm #

    Probably your best post yet; and there have been some seriously good ones to beat

    • 5i5i April 3, 2014 at 1:47 pm #

      Thoroughly spiffing of you to say so, old bean.

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