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Press: Think journalists have power over the news? Dream on

09 November 2018


I AM not writing leaders for The Guardian this month; so I have no reason to follow the news — except for this column — and this makes me feel that I am waking from an overwhelming dream.

The particular dreamlike quality of the news comes from the passivity and powerlessness with which we experience it. It’s like being the dash cam on a dodgem car that someone else is driving. Terrible things keep happening, and we can do nothing to stop them — yet, after each dreadful smash, the film resumes as before.

I think that things are much worse now that we have the internet, with multiple overlapping streams of news all round the clock. There are, this morning, people obsessing online about the American mid-term elections, but if it wasn’t them, it would be something else that I am equally powerless to affect and yet is likely, in ways that I don’t understand, to change my life in some way for the worse.

This might not be so toxic if journalists understood the world better. But, of course, we can’t. No matter how professional we are, we have completely inadequate information, even in those fairly rare cases where we understand the choices facing the decision-makers.

Sometimes, this is obvious: no journalist knows what the outcome of the Brexit negotiations will be, because no one involved in them knows either. We don’t know what the results of a trade war with China will be, because Chinese policy is made in secret, and American policy is made in an asylum. So, not only are we constantly worrying about important problems that we cannot affect: we can’t even be certain that these are the really important problems.

Maintaining the state of anxiety is part of the economic model of the business. Since it lives and dies by the attention it can deliver to advertisers, it must produce emotionally gripping stories. Pleasurable emotions can be just as captivating as uncomfortable ones — that’s why the papers carpet-bomb their readers with royal weddings. But, in the absence of pleasure, anxiety will serve — and we become its servants.

So, the confession of the new Culture Secretary, Jeremy Wright, that he doesn’t read any newspapers is actually rather heartening.


I HAVE been using a break from newspaper sites to read magazines instead, and well-written novels that are not considered cultural.

The TLS had a lovely long review by Rupert Shortt of Sir Anthony Kenny’s latest book, Brief Encounters: Notes from a philosopher’s diary (SPCK). The anecdotes about the fearsome Roman Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe catch very well the flavour of an intellectual who has really interiorised what they think they believe. Anscombe and her husband, Peter Geach, were strongly opposed to all forms of contraception, and when the news of Humanae Vitae came through, they toasted it in champagne.

Her enthusiasm for natural law was deliciously teased, Shortt recounts, by the atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel, who asked Anscombe if it would be sinful for him to play the piano with his penis. “She paused, before slowly saying ‘An und für sich, No’.

“Anscombe and Geach were initially sup­portive after Kenny stopped practising his faith, though when he told them in 1965 that he and Nancy were to wed without a Vatican dispensation, Anscombe’s response was shocking: ‘Our dearest wish . . . must be that you will be desperately unhappy in your marriage’.”

There is something there of the world of Brideshead, and a part of me finds it admirable, as well as ludicrous and sometimes nasty. It takes seriously the possibility that the world is radically wrong, and demands extreme measures to put right: nothing less seems adequate to the problem. We are used to thinking of this stance as left-wing, but, actually, it underlies all worthwhile conservatism as well.

Certainly, it’s a kind of conservatism which shows up contemporary windbags such as Jordan Peterson, whose new preface to the Gulag Archipelago contains the deathless sentence “Analysis of the content of individual Paleolithic gravesites provides evidence for the existence of substantive variance in the distribution of ability, privilege, and wealth, even in our distant past.” “Paleolithic”, right.


THE ATLANTIC magazine had a lovely little story from India, about the apps that dispense indulgences. Unlike Christian indulgences, though, these work in the present life. Ritual prayers are offered in the temple of your choice, in exchange for a small donation.

“Tens of thousands of Indians have turned to ePuja and other prayer-by-proxy companies, whose smartphone apps and websites make summoning a godly intercession as easy as ordering a pizza. Another such company, Shubhpuja, has marketed itself as a way to ‘connect to God in one click.’ Just select a puja and temple, pay a fee, and the company gets a priest to perform the ritual.”

This seems to me very close to the marketing practices of American Pentecostalists. Twenty per cent of the customers are not, apparently, Hindus.

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