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Work • Utopia
Calling an idea ‘utopian’ is normally a way of saying it’s pie-in-the-sky and not worth paying attention to. Far from it. Throughout the ages, a number of philosophers have put forward some highly provocative and interesting utopias, describing ideal arrangements of everything from schools to religion, government to holidays.
Utopian ideas aren’t meant to be immediately practical. That’s precisely why they are so useful: they take our minds off the problems of the here and now and offer us a grander vision of what there is to aim for.
The news is the most powerful and prestigious force in contemporary society, replacing religion as the touchstone of authority and meaning. It is usually the first thing we check in the morning and the last thing we consult at night. What are we searching for? The news does its best to persuade us we must keep up with its agenda – but to what end? What are the ghastly, wondrous, thrilling, destructive, bitter stories for?
It would be most honest to admit that we don’t yet know: we’re still working it out collectively. We’re still among the first generations ever to have had access to news on the current scale and we’re struggling to make sense of the deluge of information.
One thing is for sure: we don’t yet have the news we deserve. The news of our times is predominantly an agent of confusion, envy, purposeless excitement and needless terror.
In a wiser, more mature society we’d still engage with the news on a daily basis. But we’d have clearer and more ambitious ideas about what we needed it for.
News would not simply have the job of keeping us up to speed about anything unusual (or horrific) that happened since the last bulletin. It wouldn’t occasionally claim it was trying to keep the powerful in check (however important this aim). Instead the grand purpose of news would be stated clearly: to help the individual and the nation to flourish – and to bring whatever information to the fore that helped with these twin goals.
To carry out this epochal task, the ideal news organisation would bring us some of the following:
Serious news organisations are currently highly dismissive of celebrities, and abandon the whole field of celebrity to the lowest outlets, who bring us the celebrities we currently have and know too much about.
But human beings need and will always look for role models. We therefore shouldn’t complain about, or eradicate, ‘celebrity culture.’ We just need to improve it. We need to bring a better kind of person to the fore of public consciousness: we need better celebrities rather than no celebrities at all. Rather than try to suppress our love of celebrity, the news ought to channel it in optimally intelligent and fruitful directions. In the Utopian society, the best-known people (the ones whose parties and holiday photos and clothes and new hairstyles we looked at most often) would also be those who embodied and reinforced the highest, noblest and most socially beneficial values.
News outlets would be engaged in identifying and then promoting a raft of original celebrities, whose virtues captured the best sides of human nature. They would pick out for us the clever and kind research scientists, molecular biologists, poets, venture capitalists, mothers, nurses, cleaners and parking attendants, the very many people who would be more appropriate targets of celebrity than those we know today – people whose physiques, attitudes and routines we should constantly have paraded before us through enticing photography and heart-warming anecdotes. A society can only ever be as good as the celebrities it holds before itself. Serious news in the future would know that no functioning society can do without role models.
The news is currently full of senseless horrors: car crashes, drowned toddlers, fatal lightning strikes and so on. Our senses are numbed by the catastrophes. We don’t know where to place them in our minds. We may be tempted to switch off, unable to process the horror.
But a key task of the news – in a more mature and wise society – would be to use current events to keep returning to one critical theme: the fragility of life. The incidents of the news that get lumped under the term ‘accidents’ demonstrate repeatedly that the routines, habits, hopes and ordinary bother of life can be severed at any point by an utterly unpredictable – but hideously real – freak event. We need to be drawn back time and again to this profound fact. Stories of car crashes or of trees falling on people walking in parks would, in an ideal news service, still be given plenty of attention. For they have the power not only to stir our fears, but to strengthen our resolve, to appreciate more fully, and use more wisely, the present moment; to reform our priorities and to prompt us to kindness and seriousness today, in case tomorrow never comes.
At the moment, as far as the news is concerned, countries tend to disappear into their worst moments. There are large parts of the world to which we only pay collective attention when something there goes badly wrong. In theory, we know that ordinary things continue in places associated with terror, hatred and intractable conflict. The cities of Syria or Iraq become suicide bombers and tanks; virulent extremists and wailing mothers. And so we stop caring, which has serious policy implications. Widespread indifference makes diplomatic disengagement inevitable.
The route to caring about the extraordinary – which is how whatever is foreign at first appears – is through the ordinary. We need to feel close to the ordinary moments of others’ lives before we can care about what happens to them in their tragedies. This is a brute fact about the mechanics of sympathy which the media has forgotten.
The ideal news organisation of the future, would therefore tell us about street parties in Addis Ababa, love in Peru, in-laws in Mongolia and rally-driving in Nablus. By humanising the other audiences would be prepared to care just a little more about the next devastating typhoon, violent coup and appalling cluster bomb.
In order to do this the news organisations of the Utopia would need to summon (that is, source, employ and pay for) artists. For they would realise that the task of making the mundane seductive and making the ordinary lives of others reveal their depth and tenderness does not sit neatly with the traditional journalistic ambition of just telling the facts. The critical task of the journalism of the future would be to get people to care about the facts, not just lay them before the world in their brute outlines (as is done today).
In the Utopian news outlet, economic news would be considered hugely important. It would help us understand why our world is the way it is. It would not be focused so much on what is happening day by day (the stock market is moving erratically, exchange rates are volatile) but on the fact that our lives are governed by money in ways we do not adequately control.
Lying awake at night, for instance, some of us may wonder, in a sincere and yet inarticulate way, why it is that the world built by the immense energy and productive power of capitalism is not more humane and attractive. Why is there still so much suffering all around? Why do some have so much and others so little? Why are most jobs mindless? Why can’t there be more security and leisure? Why do anxiety and fear persist almost everywhere? Aren’t we destroying the planet for no particular reason or reward? (By this time it may be getting very late, and only a stubborn few will continue to press on..) Couldn’t we start again in some new way, rejig things, perhaps pass some laws and experiment with bold new ideas in order to create a freer, less anxious, happier world?
Currently, economic news doesn’t equip the population with the tools to understand their servitude. Less than 1% of the members of an advanced economy are in any position to grasp the economic system within which they live. There is widespread and deep ignorance about who owns what, how big money is made, what the relationship between capital, investment and rent is – and how the current system is legally underpinned. People are therefore left to feel a mixture of outrage and impotence. The news of the future would see it as one of its leading tasks to equip the population with the tools to make a better world economically, the world that currently only exists in about 5 highly favoured countries (Denmark, Switzerland, Norway…).
In the Utopia, the aim of political news would be to help the nation to become a better version of itself. The news would ask: how can we get things to go better. The news wouldn’t just look to bring down the odd rotten politician or business person, it would concentrate on systemic problems holding the nation back: it would look to reduce financial anxiety and working hours. It would try to halt environmental degradation. It would investigate why people have to work so hard for so little. It would never lose sight of a truly radical agenda to make the nation as good as it can be.
In its tone, Utopian news would be kindly and generous.
Nastiness is currently deeply prestigious in the world of news. An interviewer who makes a politician look stupid and mean is on track to become a hero.
It started off with politicians. Now it’s spread to almost any target conceivable. We get a secret pleasure when new films are eviscerated by a reviewer. There’s a warm reception for scathing denunciations of sports stars. There’s a ready audience for anything that paints the Prime Minister or President as a shallow fool; we approve when the people running banks are dismissed as venal idiots, or celebrities as pampered, ageing and cheating airheads. Journalists around the world have made careers for themselves being nasty about everyone who comes under their remit. Entire sections of news outlets (Private Eye, New York Observer and Gawker) are given over to vicious, throwaway assessments of other humans.
When we have a good time with ‘mean news’, we don’t think we are being pointlessly cruel. We just feel that we don’t have much power in the world, that there are lots of things wrong out there and that nastiness is the best, sharpest way to respond to sickness and evil. We’re being harsh, yes, – we think – but we’re calling time on illusion and nonsense. If we get furious and put the boot in, the world has a chance of becoming the better, kinder, saner place we’d like to see.
But the prestige of nastiness rests on some deeply confused assumptions – which run counter to the best ideals of journalism. Yes, it is the task of journalism to be sceptical, to probe beneath the official story and to ask awkward questions in order to uncover the truth. But meanness has nothing to do with this sort of patient forensic scepticism towards complex situations. Meanness has already made up its mind, it knows the story before it even begins to assemble it: it is convinced (through prejudgement) that something or someone is awful, it has shut its ears to any other information, and just wants to kick the boot in with brio.
It sounds mad to argue that we should be nicer to the likes of Marie Le Pen or Murdoch. That’s because we’ve unfortunately confused being nice with a couple of things we rightly fear: being naive and being weak. Listening carefully to what someone says, trying to see the world through their eyes, this has nothing at all to do with agreement. If you start with a determined intent to humiliate someone, their opponents are delighted (because it confirms their prejudices) and yet you arrive at no insight into how to win the hearts and minds of the very many people who really do like what Murdoch or Le Pen have to offer.
We should think of being nice as an expression of confident strength; it’s a show of being secure enough to examine points of view that feel foreign to your own.
We need the news to be nice, not in the sense of reporting only on cuddly, sweet things. But in the sense of operating with a tone that is generous, curious and civil. Awful things won’t go away because we mock them. But if we understand them, see where they are coming from, and treat their advocates and supporters as fellow human beings, we have much more chance of dealing with them successfully – and therefore of making the world a better place.
News from a while back
What is news? A standard definition might go: ‘news’ is something that people don’t know about, that matters a lot – and that has happened just now.
But consider another, subtly different way of defining the subject: ‘news’ is anything that people don’t know about, that matters a lot and that could have happened at any point in time, perhaps today, but equally, perhaps, some time in the fourth century B.C.
The news holds a prestigious place in society because – as it likes to tell us in often bombastic tones – it can inform us about the most important things that have happened anywhere in the world in the past few hours. By its very nature, the news assumes that everyone has by now already heard all about what happened yesterday and the day before – and that everyone has by now already had all the interesting thoughts that it’s ever possible to have about the past, and that we hence never need to go over any of it again. The ‘news’ simply has to be about what happened since the last bulletin – or tweet.
A lot of the time, this makes great sense. We don’t need to pour over the old stuff. We’re heading into the future, and at dizzying speed, and therefore we need the most up-to-date information, right now. But, sometimes, this philosophy robs us of a chance to get at key bits of information that didn’t gestate since breakfast time.
Sometimes – and this is something the news will never tell us – the real ‘news’ happened a long time ago. It deserves to be called news because it’s still important, it’s still relevant and most crucially, it’s still new to most people alive now. There’s a lot of vital information out there that for various reasons hasn’t reached us yet. News organisations may boast about their high-tech satellites and fibre-optic cables, but the obstacles to delayed news are often cultural and psychological. Important information floats in the darker parts of the ether, but we’re distracted by other things, no one is bringing it up, we’re looking elsewhere. But the day we learn to tune in at last, it become news.
In the early 400s B.C., the philosopher Socrates had a vital insight (a big bit of news) into what is needed for a good life. He argued that the first responsibility each person has towards themselves is to ‘know themselves.’ Every human needs to spend a good deal of their life getting to understand their motives, their prejudices, their ambitions and their frailties. We need to understand what we are really trying to do with our careers or why we so often get into in bitter rows with our partners or why every relationship we’ve been in fails or why we haven’t spoken to one of our cousins for six years, or why we get so anxious every Sunday evening. At the root of such mysteries is the fact that we don’t have full insight into our own motives and desires. Socrates’s momentous discovery is the amazing extent of our ignorance about ourselves. This discovery took place millennia ago, in a suburb of Athens. But it remains news, headline news, because the message has not yet been heard.
Judged on the basis of importance, rather than sheer novelty, this piece of news from Athens deserves to go straight to the top of the agenda. It’s one of the enduring lead stories of humanity.
In the wiser society, news would be thought of not just what happened in the last 24 hours, it could have happened at any time. The Utopian news organisation would understand that sometimes the real ‘news’ happened a long time ago. It deserves to be called news because it’s still important, it’s still relevant and most crucially, it’s still new to most people alive now.
News would strive to be biased
If the news is to matter to us, it must be presented to us by organisations that have tried to think through the ends of human life, that have a vision of where we are trying to go as a species, and that have somewhere articulated their answers to their audiences. Enough of fence-sitting organisations that never dare to say what they really think.
For example, it seems that for years, the BBC has blatantly attempted to put out news without any bias attached to it. In a complex world, it’s simply decided to try to be ‘neutral’, hoping that this will constitute the best possible defence of important things. When reporting on contentious issues, the BBC has tried to be – unforgivably – constantly ‘fair’ and scrupulous about ‘the facts’.
Yet the BBC’s bias against bias seems fundamentally mistaken. Facts can only become meaningful and relevant to us when they slot into some picture of what is important or trivial, right or wrong, hopeful or worrying, good or bad. News organisations that vaunt their neutrality forget that neutrality is simply impossible vis-à-vis the biggest questions facing our civilisation. There is no technocratic, risk-free, all-knowing sober set of answers to cling to. It’s a question of politics in the widest sense, and in the end, if you like, of philosophy.
The issue is not – therefore – the illusory one between bias and fact but between better and worse varieties of bias. We shouldn’t knock America’s Fox News or Britain’s Daily Mail just on the basis that they are biased, though we might argue that they seem badly biased.
Think of the figures we most revere in history: Plato, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Sigmund Freud, the Buddha, Ghandi, Nelson Mandela… Each of them had a strong sense of what mattered and why, and their judgements were anything but perfectly balanced. They were just biased in fruitful ways.
We don’t need news stripped of bias, we need news presented to us with the best kinds of bias.
News organisations would employ comedians, artists and novelists
News organisations are overwhelmingly focused on gathering information – assuming that if the information is significant, it will go deep into our hearts and minds. But in truth, facts are rarely enough. We merely get bored and turn away when they’re heaped in front of us. In order to matter to us, news has to become skilled at entering our imaginations: it has to accept the resounding truth that bare information isn’t sufficient. To do justice to the material it handles every day, news needs to become a little more like art.
Sadly, many of the things that we should give our attention to are very easily ignored day to day, like the slow increment of stresses in the environment or the distant suffering of others. A crucial fact may become abstract and – to us – meaningless.
We are creatures designed for intimate contact, for local lives and personal relationships. For ideas to become powerful in our souls, they need to be anchored in experience. We need to feel them, see them. This is what art, at its best, lasers in on.
Conclusion: popularity and importance
In the Utopia, the most serious news would also be the most popular. We wouldn’t have the current fateful division between serious news (which no one takes in) and trivial news (which everyone is obsessed by).
In the Utopia, serious news would have learned a great deal from today’s tabloids. The aim would be to win popularity for what is important, useful, profound and good. It would be generous towards the ease with which we get distracted and the rapidity with which sympathy fades.
Take the environment: the arctic ice is melting and this is going to have major, lasting implications for sea levels and weather around the world.
A few people care a lot but, strangely and shamefully, Taylor Swift’s legs are far more captivating. They are lovely in ways that seem to defy description: somehow they look ordinary, yet perfect. They are long, yet not freakish. They seem unbowed by their implausible length; both utterly firm and yet yielding and soft.
People who take global warming seriously tend to get apoplectic at this point. They’re not wrong. While delightful, Taylor Swift’s legs are of little significance in comparison with the fate of the planet. But getting angry at our fascination with the thighs of a singer is counter-productive in a democracy. We cannot be collectively dragged into being more responsible through guilt. And for a very simple reason. We don’t have to pay attention. If those who care about arctic melt are going to get angry, bitter and stern, they’ll just be ignored.
The problem is, we really do need to do something about that ice. But the starting point has to be indulgence towards the way our minds work. We are interested in Taylor Swift’s legs not because we are evil – but because we are wired in unhelpful ways. If we are going to be interested en masse in the defrosting poles, we need to take our fragilities on board and therefore get serious, very serious, about trying to make important news not just ‘important’, but also beguiling – almost as tempting to hear about as Taylor’s legs. Then things stand a chance of changing.
For a year, The School of Life ran a daily news outlet which challenged the way the news was presented to a mass audience. The site reached 10 million people. Please visit the site here: