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Book review: The News: A User’s Manual

Alain de Botton thinks the news ought to have a higher purpose than merely what is new

By Jeremy Paxman  /  The Guardian

The News: A User’s Manual by Alain De Botton

Thanks be, Alain de Botton has come among us again, as he does so often when we’re perplexed. Anxious about whether you understand art? Do you appreciate sex properly? What’s religion about? How can you be happy? Fear not, De Botton can tell you, quickly and easily. Not since Moses went up a mountain and came down carrying a couple of slabs of granite reducing life to 10 commandments has anyone been able to reduce the complex enigmas of existence down to simple injunctions. The man has a solution for everything.

And now he has turned his elegantly groomed brain to the news, which, he tells us early on, “now occupies a position of power at least equal to that formerly enjoyed by faiths.” This is a claim to get mere mortals scratching our heads. Admittedly Huw Edwards can come across like some evangelical preacher on a wet Sunday morning in Wales, and indeed, most of the earnest prophets of news claim merely to be passing on a greater truth. But the plain fact is the news is nothing like religion. It does not propose the existence of a supernatural being. It does not lay down rules for life. When it comes to it, news is just some things that have happened, as chosen by some not-very-interesting people running newspapers and television.

These people have rather predictable tastes and rather obvious blindspots. But they’re worried. Which makes them shout a bit too wildly: after all, their jobs are on the line. The other day the Daily Telegraph ran a picture story showing how a boulder had rolled down a mountainside in Italy, adding “incredibly ... no one was injured”. Incredibly? It reads better than “unsurprisingly, since there was no one in its path,” I suppose. And was it Liz Hurley or Thora Hird who denied she had had an affair with Bill Clinton? The madder everything gets, the less anyone needs to read any of it.

So on the torrent comes: 24-hour news channels on radio and TV, and Web sites, too, each one trying to make a little knowledge go slightly further than its rivals, the whole enterprise judged for the few minutes when a channel may, perhaps, claim to have something that no one else has got. The rest of the time the machines clank away noisily but not necessarily to any great purpose. It matters not very much whether anything important has happened, the TV and radio bulletins will make their self-important appearance at the designated hour and at the designated length. The newsreaders’ ponderous sobriety demands our attention. But why should we give it?

Alain de Botton’s solution to this very 21st-century problem is to prescribe a new role for news. The News: A User’s Manual is a nicely produced little tract, rather resembling an old Everyman edition. And De Botton is on to something. Perhaps it is time to question the nostrum that many of us have lived by, that the healthy democracy is the well-informed democracy, that knowledge sets you free. The sheer ubiquity of news must have an effect on us, and it cries out for some proper analysis. But unfortunately, this is not it.

De Botton thinks the news ought to have a higher purpose than merely what is new. Flogging away at an attempt to draw an analogy between news and religion, his book is larded with much use of the word “should,” as if the job of those in the editorial priesthood is really not to ask what is new and significant, but rather what is going to make our readers and viewers better people. He even joins the crusade — begun by Martyn Lewis, author of Dogs in the News and that other unjustifiably neglected masterpiece, Cats in the News — for more “Good News.” I fear De Botton the Sage rather misses the point. There is nothing so silly as a very clever man, and his prescription is as fruitful as arguing that a prawn should be a giraffe.

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