Saturday 8 December 2012

Without News day : Ending

At the beginning of this week I put myself on a bit of an experiment to avoid news. The reasons for this were many, but now at the end of my experiment, how was it?

The first thing I noticed is that it is now virtually impossible to avoid news. No matter how much I tried to switch off the car radio on the hour, or avoid newspaper stands, I frequently found I was being stalked by subversive news on-line. I use the internet a lot for my work; just about every webpage has some form of advertising and a link to the news. Snippets were unavoidable, but I forced myself to not read any further, with one exception, the death of Jacintha Saldanha, 46.

Mrs Saldanha was the nurse who answered the hoax call from 2Day FM trying to find out why the Duchess of Cambridge was in hospital. With tragic consequences it looks like she has taken her own life as a result. I can only imagine what her husband and children are going through. The crassness of this prank, and the devastating consequences of it, illustrates the power of the press, and the responsibility the press has to human emotions. It is a real power. Advertisers do not spend hard earned money on media advertising just for fun. They know that getting their message out there via the press is vital to sales.

Away from advertising though, the press really do hold sway and power. In 1997, the general election it was said was won by Labour because The Sun switched allegiance from the Conservatives. But looking further back the human rights campaigner Malcolm X summarised this power in a way I could never hope to do;

“The media's the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that's power. Because they control the minds of the masses.”

“Because they control the minds of the masses.” He wasn’t being scaremongering. The press really do control what we think, we the masses. Social media is developing this into a higher level of this control. How many people have been destroyed recently by a single tweet or Facebook comment going viral.  As humans we are all flawed and make mistakes. At times the press news and social media now resembles the mob at the Bastille, off with their heads, without anyone really standing back and saying – hang on is this right??  We need our press but we do need some form of slow down and think what you’re doing. In days gone by press hacks knew their story, re checked facts and rechecked again before breaking a story. It’s why the press were valued, they got it right. Increasingly they work at such a frenetic pace, they get it wrong, and in doing so, slowly, ever so slowly the mob at the Bastille are making notes.

My second thought based on my experiment this week is that I’ve missed an awful lot of news, but, and it’s a serious but, am I any less well informed? Possibly, although I have gained snippets of news via the aforementioned on-line sites. What I completely missed and forgot was happening was the Chancellors Autumn Statement. Only last night did I hear some analysis of this. Presumably there was endless coverage of this and analysis resplendent with graphs, charts and people in the street saying “how bad it all is”. I just don’t know. I was blissfully unaware it happened while reading my Christmas Edition of Country Life. Am I any worse off not knowing what was said by the Chancellor? Avoiding the news has somehow given me a lot more time to do other things.  I knew I’d have a bit more time, but it took me two or three days to appreciate I had all this additional time to read hard copy, and time is something we cannot produce more of.

Most of my days are spent glued to a mobile device or a computer hunting down stories, whilst reading around the news. The very first thing I do in the morning is switch on the blackberry and check Twitter, News sites and half a dozen conservation websites; anything that interests me I send via e-mail to work to look at in more depth. Before going to sleep at night I do exactly the same. Like all media people I’m always looking for that breaking story. This week, in a small way I regained some semblance of reality. I stopped chasing, I had time. I read magazines unopened since they were bought, I read books, I watched birds on the bird feeder for 20 minutes, I cooked, I rang friends, I wrote. One evening after a few phone calls I read a Christmas Ghost Story and then with just candlelight and a whisky sat for half an hour relaxing before bed. I haven’t done that for years.

My sleeping patterns have improved too. Normally I’m awake about 5am, mind buzzing with what’s happening in the news. Must find out, must find out! But this week, 7am was an average wake up time, in-fact yesterday 8am.  Today though I returned to 5.30 wake up, as instead of turning over and relaxing, I put the news on the radio, then checked Twitter….. ahh yes, the pattern is developing again. Anything that raises adrenaline levels before bed can cause insomnia and disturbed sleep.  Insomnia can be a trigger for depression, depression leads to insomnia.  One of these adrenaline causing activities is watching TV, so watching the 10pm news and then heading to bed, potentially could be harmful to mind and soul.

Now all this is just a single persons experiment and thoughts after one week. Many will disagree, and that is healthy. What do I conclude?  Well; I’m by no means anti press. I think the power the press have, providing it remains free and regulated is a force for good. Personally I have re-learnt that we (I) do not need to be as informed, re-informed and analysed as we are 24 hours a day 365 days a year. It’s not necessary as most of this blanket coverage of a story is re-hash of old facts. I have probably missed a lot of news but is that such a great loss?  I’m more convinced than ever that over populating the airwaves and printed media with non breaking news is depressing the creative and free-thinking soul of the Country. I’ll give you an example.

We’ve been told since 2008 that we’re in recession. It’s everywhere, so everyone has become cautious, worried, what’s the future for our children going to be like. I don’t deny there’s a fiscal problem, especially in Government, but recession is different to not having money. Recession is poor or negative growth of an economy = an economy that needs taxes = more taxes are gathered in times of growth = bigger Government spending. Having briefly studied economics at University, one of the first things we were told was that continuous growth is unsustainable, and fiscal adjustments downwards always follow growth. It’s been a cycle of financial management as long as there’s been money. There are trillions of pounds sloshing about our economy, but we are constantly being told by the press, who feed on the Government, who need the press, its Armageddon waiting in the wings time, one false move and we’ll all be living in cardboard boxes. Absolute poppycock. I certainly have less money than 5 years ago, not having had a pay rise, but so far I’ve not phoned Pickfords for some packing boxes.  Have you been to a pub or restaurant lately; can’t get a table because of all the people eating. I was in Wells last Saturday at the market, the place was heaving, and everywhere was really busy. Drive on the roads, they are full of people, seemingly driving new cars. When was the last time you saw an old banger?

My point? Recession is an economic process. Day to day living costs  = cashflow. Cash is still flowing, there may be less of it flowing about, but I’m convinced we’re being kept in recession by the Government and Banks repeatedly informing us that we are in recession by the press, because the Government wants locked up savings to be brought into the economic cashflow, because spending cash brings in 20% revenue in the form of VAT and higher business tax if there’s more profit. That’s why people like my parents are getting 1 or 2 % on investments. Better to spend this, it’s going to be worth much less next year you know.

One interesting aspect of my week away from news, was that the news I heard of from friends and colleagues was all about UK stories. Not one person I spoke to mentioned anything from abroad yet most news on TV especially is from abroad. I’ll not try and analyse why only UK news filtered to me by friends, purely this was an observation.

My week has proven to me that I don’t need the news to function, and I do feel a lot more positive about life. But it’s nice to know what is happening as people tend to chat about the news. One looks a right chump when a conversation begins with, “did you see….” And a blank expression reveals, well actually no I was reading an improving book, as Bertie Wooster would say.

News is here to stay and that is no bad thing, but maybe as a society if we all consumed 50% less news, then the art of conversation may return. We may be a more questioning society. We may indulge in more free thinking discussions. Writing based on intellectual thought rather than analysis of news analysis. And that has to be a good thing.

Because, remember what Malcolm X said.

Tuesday 4 December 2012

Avoiding the news

Without News day 1 : December 3rd

Yesterday I took the decision to try and avoid all contact with news for a week as an experiment. No grand philosophical reason, I wasn’t looking for a spiritual uplift in the season of Advent, more I just feel weighed down with the relentless bad news which seems to continuously batter the reader and listener.

News media has always dwelt on the bad in the human existence, bad news sells, good news doesn’t. Until recently however all news came from the print media or from the television flickering away half watched in the corner of a room. Both these media are controlled and licenced of course and bring about a sanitised version of what has developed on-line in recent years. On-line media has few controls, both where and when it is put out there. Grossly upsetting images of car crashes or people being killed now litter the internet, put out as breaking news.  Even logging onto my personal e-mail account now necessitates wading through the news section before I get there.  Why? I just want to read my e-mails.

Unlike my parents who devour three newspapers a day, which I believe is a throwback to the Second World War when people wanted to know what was happening, I have never been a massive consumer of news. I have to be aware for my work, but researching wildlife stories often involves phone bashing or more targeted research.  My work also involves being sent press releases by major organisations, usually embargoed for a few days and while interesting for news media generally, few come as new news to the office as we’re across the stories anyway. And it is these press releases that first got me thinking about this experiment to avoid news for a week.

The ash-dieback story began my train of thought here. Back in June, the Forestry Commission sent out a scientific notice about the disease which went unnoticed by the media. This Chalara Fraxinea fungus wasn’t news; because it wasn’t doing any real harm… was it? I even tried to get colleagues working in wildlife media interested. But it was the summer, booking 3 weeks in the Costa del Sol or Great Yarmouth was uppermost in their minds.

Fast forward 5 months and a single mature ash tree in East Anglia shows symptoms of the disease.  Like opening a beer tap at a Bavarian Hops Festival, journalists grabbed any copy they could find and printed, reprinted and analyzed the reprinting. Speed was everything; we need to be first with the news. Red top papers announced that the world would end and the British countryside would be devoid of trees in a few years. Experienced journalists then tried to get a more measured grip on this new arrival, but still trudged out the same few facts, which primarily were based on press releases and copy from other media. I now listen to the radio, watch TV or read both print and on-line sources and unpick the press release or paragraphs lifted from another article, rehashed in an edited format. None of this is wrong, but, and it is a big but, many of the facts were, shall we say, weak, because news is about speed. First past the post sells, ya boo sucks loser! Therefore no matter how weak these fact were they became headline grabbing facts.

But then this Chalara Fraxinea disease did something more dramatic, it crossed over into other forms of its host. Non news output began running stories, often a rehash of news media, everyone wanted a bit of the cherry before the disease withered it into an inedible form. Experts were brought out of the woodwork in their droves to provide analysis…. All of which said the same, “we don’t know what the future brings to our ash trees, but there are about 10 other tree diseases in the UK which are of concern” Sorry expert we’re not interested in those, god long complex names, but, ash die-back, great name for a headline. Have aliens brought it to Earth? Is this the X-Factor of tree diseases…. And on it went.

I’m not against all of this, but by the end of 2 weeks of continuously having  ash die-back thrust upon me I became so fed up of the whole situation I wanted to go out and fell all the trees myself before our other wildlife was either maimed by the falling dead branches or small dogs suffered asthma attack from the spores as they wee’d up a trunk. I may jest here, but there is a serious side to this. At the height of the media coverage of this disease I received an e-mail from a worried listener who has just had 3 mature ash trees in her garden felled as a precaution, because she was worried about what they’d do to her other trees. But now she didn’t know what to do with the timber that presumably lay strewn across her patio. When telling her she could have left them standing, she was heartbroken, because she loved those trees.

In the midst of this ash disease feeding frenzy I was desperate to know what was going on elsewhere; had Syria become peaceful? Presumably Afghanistan was also peaceful. Nothing had been heard about any of these vitally important news items for weeks. I’d missed seeing a correspondent covered in dust standing by someone firing an AK47 at some passing pigeons. Even the US elections which seem to happen for 10 years at a time were forgotten about.

And this started me off on this experiment, because I, like many people have press coverage thrust upon us these days 24:7. But what do we actually learn?

The press had covered the ash die-back COBR briefing by the Government that mature ash trees should not be felled, but this was usually in paragraph 9, which if reading on-line was after an advert for something like shower shoes, the perfect Christmas gift for a loved one. Most people only read the first 100 words of a story. In fact the headline and the first 2 sentences are often all that is ever read unless someone is really interested in a story. In media terms this is called the hook, hook them in they’ll read it or watch it. It’s why we have headlines on news TV and the red tops outrageous, but very clever headlines. And this is my worry. On-line media is perfect for news. Sound bites lend themselves to on-line media like a pair of favoured gloves will warm cold hands on a winter’s day. Ten words add a link and press send and the news is out there. Everyone believes it, because it is in print. (I’ve written this, so it must be true). And that’s a worry, because in my job, I always have to go back to source, no matter how respected an organisation is and their press release, to check facts.

A recent example of this was the Daily Express saying that the UK is about to be “plunged” into the coldest winter in 100 years, with temperatures set to “plummet” to record breaking minus 20.  Read the article however and every fact is prefixed with “it is possible” or “while difficult to predict accurately” or “some experts say”. We may plunge into a new ice age this winter, but when I was growing up, winters were cold, lots of snow and ice and freezing, I remember learning about this at school. Winter is, well, Winter. And while I agree minus 20 is exceptional here in the UK, if we take time to look at the facts, in this case from the Met Office, the coldest temperature in Britain ever was minus 26.1 in Shropshire in January 1982. I’m not good at maths but I think that’s only 30 years ago.


Will the experiment work?

So I’m now in day 2 of the experiment. What do I hope to achieve? Well I’m not sure, that’s half the fun. I spend a lot of time reading the news, but then a lot of time wondering where the facts came from or wondering whether my life been improved by knowing that. Often the answer is no. It’s like distraction behaviour in psychological terms. It’s time for the news, must switch on the TV or radio and listen to what quite frankly is the same news in different time zones, and then half an hour later we think , wish I had time to ring my friend, but it’s a bit late now, tomorrow.

I took the train to work last week for the first time in ages and everyone was looking at their i-phones in a repeated pattern. A few were reading something intently, but most looked at the phone, presumably nothing new had happened since it was last looked at, so they put their phone into a pocket. 1 minute later out came the phone, looked at again, back in pocket and repeat. This often lasted the whole journey.  Are we scared of not knowing???? We all live in an age of information overload, and at my age, I need to create space in my brain for more information, so I switched off Twitter, BBC news  and Facebook on my Blackberry and watched some fieldfares devouring berries on a tree by the station. I was the only one doing this out of say 100 people, 80% glued to their phones, looking down, not looking up.  Looking up and watching fieldfares enriched my life that morning, more than any news coverage could do.

And yesterday, day 1?

Well I almost avoided the news. A colleague e-mailed me with news of a fatal crash on the M4 motorway, which really is dreadful news for those concerned and my thoughts go to then. And Julie my partner emailed me to say the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are expecting. Good news for a  Monarchist like me, but I left it at that. I know they’re expecting and it’s a private matter. I don’t need to know details, or speculation of the baby’s sex, date of birth, names, constitutional ranking, and comment from a third cousin once removed who says in a ground breaking way “we’re all very pleased for the happy couple” which I can imagine is now spread across every media source today.

I wonder if ash die-back has been cured then………..