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Homework for Adults?: Alain de Botton on The News

Read Sunday, 30 Mar 2014

Paul Donoghue interviews bestselling author Alain de Botton on The News – his philosopher’s look at the newspaper stories that so many of us read, but so few of us really study … or question. Why we are so interested in stories about crime, celebrity and the like … and what does it say about us? How can we read the newspapers better?

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I remember the day, many years ago, when I first became aware of the world of news. My primary school teacher held up a copy of our state’s daily newspaper; we passed it around, we talked about the front page, we read some of the stories aloud. At the time I didn’t understand what this thing was and why we were supposed to care. My thinking, at that age, was essentially this: a newspaper is a boring, daily slog, like homework but for adults.

This is not an uncommon scenario, according to British philosopher Alain de Botton, whose new book The News examines the daily flood of information and what it is doing to our lives. Though there is ‘no more powerful force in modern society than the news’, he says, we are more likely to study Othello than our local paper. One of De Botton’s aims with The News – in which he casts a philosopher’s eye over two dozen news stories covering business, crime and celebrity, among others – is to help realise a better version of this deeply important form of public education. And how timely the book is. As De Botton wrote, at home in London, the phone-hacking scandal, which has sullied the integrity of the British press, was unfolding a short distance away.

‘The phone-hacking scandal revealed a deep longing for a better kind of news, a news that wouldn’t be so cynical and so destructive,’ De Botton tells me. Across 200-odd pages, he gives us an idea of what might constitute, in his eyes, the ‘ideal news organisation of the future’. Rather than using stories about flu epidemics or political scandals to stoke our fear and anger, he argues, the news should instead place these things in perspective. We should be reminded that our species is imperfect: humans are not infallible, they are not above nature.


When you spend a bit of time thinking about the news, you start to notice the repetition: the ‘David vs Goliath battle’, the ‘unsung hero’. These are the narratives to which the news business constantly returns. I had thought it was just a convenient way of framing a story; De Botton sees it differently. Consider a few recent headlines: ‘Auckland mayor Len Brown admits two year affair, accused of sex acts in Council office’; ‘Sexting MP Peter Dowling sent explicit images to secret mistress’; and ‘Thai Brothel Blackouts and Other New Secret Service Sex Scandals’. The stories behind these headlines, De Botton argues, are all the same. ‘It goes like this: Men in highly responsible positions are coming unstuck because their sexual desires lead them to do things that, when made public, are shameful.’ He says that addressing this underlying theme – telling us why these masculine indiscretions keep occurring – is the more important, though often untold, story.

De Botton’s book raises interesting questions about the nature of foreign news, which generally doesn’t match celebrity or crime for page views. The conclusion he comes to is that unless we understand what passes for normal for life in Aleppo, for example — how people travel to work or what they eat for breakfast — then we can’t know how much to care when a bomb rips through the local food market. ‘The ideal news organisation of the future,’ he writes, ‘would routinely commission stories on certain identification-inducing aspects of human nature which invariably exist in the most far-flung and ravaged corners of our globe…. We can be properly concerned about the sad and violent interruptions only if we know enough about the underlying steady state of a place, about the daily life, routines and modest hopes of its population.’ The problem here is obvious. Professional journalists are disappearing; the ones that remain are time and resource poor. How does an editor justify assigning a reporter to tell us about normal, boring stuff in far-away places?

De Botton has been leading the charge over the past decade for the return of philosophy to the popular consciousness. His books sell very well and he will next month bring his project The School Of Life, a kind of university for everyday living, back to Melbourne. But he has his critics. Last year, writer Victoria Beale published an essay called ‘How To Be A Pseudo-Intellectual’, in which she labelled De Botton the ‘self-help guru of the middle class’ and said he practiced ‘Philosophy Lite’. De Botton says that because he sits somewhere between academic and writer – he started a doctorate in philosophy at Harvard, but dropped out to publish books – he tends to cop it from both sides. ‘It’s a very hard trick to pull off,’ he says. ‘Some people think you’re too heavy, others that you’re too light.’ De Botton says he is committed to being both popular and serious. He says big ideas – and there some big ones raised in The News – need to reach the widest possible audience. As a journalist – and one who started his career at that very newspaper that was passed around the classroom – I have to agree.

This article was first published in the Big Issue (Australia). Alain de Botton appeared at the Dallas Brooks Centre for the Wheeler Centre last week. We’ll publish a video soon, so check back (or subscribe to our video podcast).

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