Unthink: Improving My Relationship with the News
'We should bear in mind that, in general, it is the object of our newspapers rather to create a sensation – to make a point – than to further the cause of truth.The latter end is only pursued when it seems coincident with the latter.'
‘The Mystery of Marie Rogêt’, by Edgar Allan Poe
Until only a few months ago, I felt I had become addicted to the news – world events, recent debates in the Commons, the latest controversies around government policies. I became hooked on the new ‘Live’ feeds that have started to appear on news websites, and followed the changing fortunes of the war in Ukraine with something approaching mania, as though my knowing it might help in some tangible way.
Added to this, there was the shame of somehow appearing to be disinterested when I was ignorant of recent events during conversations with friends, colleagues and family. It was as though remaining up-to-date with everything was the compulsory duty of any good citizen.
And it would seem I am not the only one. At the end of last year, in a five-part series of programmes on BBC Radio 4 entitled ‘Living with the News’, author and journalist Oliver Burkeman addressed this very modern phenomenon in the way in consume – or are consumed by – the news. He suggests the roots of this unequal relationship lie in the world of social media, the rise of smartphones, and the digital advertising and online algorithms that curate – control – what we see on the internet.
Across the course of the series, Burkeman concluded that, far from being a civic duty, our modern addiction to the news can actually distort our vision of reality, intensify divisions in society and stop us from understanding each other. Perhaps more concerningly, the series highlighted how these divisions and distortions actually benefit the media industry, since it is by playing with our emotions that newspapers encourage us to engage with the news, and it is our engagement that brings in their advertising revenue. Our outrage and anxiety are increasingly profitable for news outlets.
I recently read something, however, which made me realise that this concern about the effect of the news is not just a contemporary concern. In 1962, Adrian Bell – writer and farmer – was remembering a cold winter spent hedge-cutting on a remote farm in Suffolk in 1920 with a fellow farm-labourer:
‘All the time that the bellowing politicians were sowing the seeds of a war that would kill the sons of the soldiers just home from the trenches, we worked in that remote place, and never an idea passed between us, nor any reference to a newspaper, for I do not think Luke ever read one.’
The two of them focus on their work – hedging, it appears, is a much-underappreciated art – and on their surroundings. The physical act of labour, and the appreciation and integration with nature that their labour brings them, is enough. No words are required, no ideas need to be expressed. They remain attentive to the moment they are living in.
At first, I found it strange that Bell conflated the act of speech with that of thought, but realised that – in the medium of the media – these two are often the same: news inevitably has a concealed – or often not-so-concealed – agenda, and even the most seemingly innocuous news item will be given a ‘spin’, to further the interests of the newspaper. We are therefore being spoon-fed other people’s opinions and perspectives as we read. As Adrian Bell explains:
‘Sometimes I have a sympathy for those brotherhoods who don't speak at all, since most of what passes for thought is not thinking, but pugnacity veneered with reasons.’
Some things never change.
Towards the end of Burkeman’s series, he interviews a number of individuals who had attempted to establish a better relationship with the news, one that has allowed them to step back from the tumult of detail and unending crisis. For many, this experience was difficult: giving-up the news is like giving-up any other addiction, and at first, they felt an intense fear of missing out, of being left behind, of not knowing some crucial detail. But they soon found a sense of liberation when they had freed themselves from the unremittingly panic of the news.
Sixty years earlier, Adrian Bell was urging people to distance themselves from the media from an early age:
‘People are taught to think: I wish they were also taught to unthink; […] Only a few people, like philosophers, are fit for thinking; […] Scientists, let's face it, have brought us as much woe as wealth with theirs. […] I am for unthink.’
I, too am for unthink. We live our lives surrounded – saturated – by bad news, which is delivered to us by an industry that is financially dependent on provoking our outrage. The quote I used at the beginning of this post, from Edgar Allan Poe’s short story ‘The Mystery of Marie Rogêt’, written in 1842, highlights just how long this has been true.
I have now found a way of improving my relationship with the news. Instead of frantically refreshing the browser window to see new headlines, I receive a weekly, offline, printed magazine summarising the key stories, allowing me to digest the news at a pace I choose, often sitting outside at the patio table. I have been making time to catch-up on other reading. I find my attention wandering from the page to the garden, choosing what needs doing next, planning for the next planting, and observing the fruit, vegetables and flowers growing, day by day. I focus on learning new crafts: at the moment, I am really enjoying embroidery.
Of course, there are Big Things happening in the world, and Big Issues threatening our lives, our society, our planet, and it can be reassuring to know where we stand in relation to these events and changes, and there are things – locally, in our communities or our workplaces – where we can make a difference. But we also need space to observe, freely and without judgement, and to resist being dragged into the turmoil of the news. It is an escape, not away from the real world, but towards it.
So, after a bank holiday spent in the garden, enjoying the warmth that May has brought, planting-up our tomatoes, courgettes and beans, and listening to the bees visiting the flowers on the blueberries, chives and forget-me-nots, I finish Adrian Bell’s article:
‘I recall a blessed bank holiday that I spent hoeing roots; row beside row, plant after plant around which tinkled my earth-shining hoe; larks in the sky, and for variety one small apple tree […]. There, as a reward of labour, was the slender trunk to lean my stiff back against […]. Luke had been in his grave a long time by then. But he would have understood, and sat with me there, and said nothing.’
Oliver Burkeman's documentary radio series 'Living with the News' is still available to listen to on BBC Sounds. Adrian Bell's article 'Luke's Bottle' can be found in a recent collection of his Eastern Daily Press articles, called A Countryman's Spring Notebook, selected by Richard Hawking and published by Slightly Foxed.