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Dog eat dog

26 April 2013

Another biter: The Guardian's sports section on Monday

Another biter: The Guardian's sports section on Monday

IS NEWS bad for us? Apparently someone has been telling The Guardian's journalists this. Madeleine Bunting wrote: "Imagine a news-free life - no radio, no television news. What would you miss? According to the Swiss novelist Rolf Dobelli, the answer is not much.

"In fact, your creativity, insight and concentration could all flourish without the addictive habits of the news junkies whose activities are constantly punctuated by the drip-drip stimulation of novelty.

"As Dobelli described his four-year news purdah to a group of Guardian journalists last week, there was a sharp intake of collective breath, nervous laughter and complete astonishment. How could someone suggest such a thing to a journalist? He ploughed on: news is bad for your health, very bad for your mental faculties, and bad for your emotional state."

This seems to me completely self-evident. I never listen to the Today programme, or watch any television current-affairs programmes; and I never read a newspaper when I am not paid to do so. I may still be mad, fat, and dangerous to know, but think how much worse I would be if I were on top of all the latest news as well. Ms Bunting, however, will have none of this.

"It's not news per se that is the problem, but the formats in which we now consume news and the habits of constant interruption and brief attention they generate. [But] the whole point of news sites and newspapers has always been to introduce you to events and ideas you might not otherwise encounter.

"Cut yourself off from all of that and you limit your understanding and engagement in life. You isolate yourself from the collective conversation that news sustains and inspires. In the end it closes down your world to a very small space of who you know and what they know. It denies curiosity, one of the great human appetites that news both satisfies and feeds. It restricts your understanding of the huge diversity of human experience."

I think here she is rather missing the thrust and power of Dobelli's argument. It's not as if there were some river of pure news from which we could drink if we only avoided "the formats in which we now consume news". It always comes in a format. If all available formats are designed to make thought and concentration more difficult - and, increasingly, they are - then the news we get is bad for us. And it is.

Mass-market news is about as intellectually stimulating as a shopping mall. After all, that is what it is, in economic function: a place to wander, in a state of blurry distraction, until you settle on something to buy. Novelty is something that the techniques of producing news are designed to exclude. There is endless variation, true, but only within rigid limits. The names change, but the parts do not.

This is as true of sport, and of politics, as it is of the Mail's sidebar of shame, where every day a different line-up of pretty women "show off their" concavities and convexities - but it's always the same bumps and hollows.

Anyone who has tried to get a genuinely new idea into a newspaper - and Madeleine Bunting has certainly done so - knows how fiendishly difficult it is. And it certainly cannot be done in a news story.

The same is true of criticism in ad-funded media. That does not involve discovering and praising the particular excellences of an article. It is almost entirely a matter of saying what other things it resembles. This is not populism: the ultimate form of these reviews is not the customer comments on Amazon, but the strip above them, which suggests other things you might like to buy if you have just bought any particular widget.

Anything really new is disturbing. News merely titillates.

There is worse. The most ghastly promise of the whole modern news machine is, of course, what Ms Bunting politely calls "the collective conversation that news sustains and inspires". I spent part of one morning this week engaged in what is known as "Twitter spat" with followers and friends of Richard Dawkins. He wrote something silly on his Twitter feed. I wrote something silly poking fun at it.

Tens of thousands of people read the result, and were briefly stirred by it. At one stage, three people a second were looking. There were 2400 comments by the end of the first day. A biology professor in Chicago wrote a piece on his blog calling me "an accomodationist moron".

Nowhere, in any of this, was there any shred of novelty. Even the biologist, Professor Coyne, had only varied his earlier judgement of me as "The Guardian's resident moron". I really cannot believe that anyone's life or understanding was enriched by this exchange.

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