This year, I have tried my best to ignore the edutainment of what is colloquially known as “The News”.
According to my internet browser history, I have visited only 52 unique pages on the BBC News website this year – previously my number one news source. There was an understandable peak around the General Election (6 pages) and I was also interested in the referendum in Catalonia (3 pages) and the German election (2 pages).
9 of the 52 pages were news stories about sport. My news injunction did not extend to sport: I visited a gluttonous 516 unique pages on the BBC Sport website this year, which gives you some indication of my previous BBC News addiction.
If I exclude those sporting news stories and other stories that were clearly the results of specific internet searches – such as the 4 pages I visited when researching my podcast play about squatting – we end up with just 30 news stories.
This is quite a remarkable return for a man who used to pride himself on staying right on top of whatever was happening, wherever it was happening. In December 2016, I visited 117 pages on the BBC website in a single week.
Other news sources I consulted this year include:
- Positive News (47 pages and their weekly mailing list for most of the year)
- Kottke.org (16 pages, but that’s mostly science, arts and culture)
- Christian Payne’s superb Our Man Inside mailing list (now sadly on hiatus)
- Occasionally satirical news programmes, including The Now Show and Have I Got News For You
- A few editions of The Week magazine, a digest of the week’s news from a catholic plurality of sources
- My friends (in person, not on social media)
That’s about it.
And the silence has been wonderful. More time to work and relax, less distraction and less time worrying about things beyond my control. Very Stoic, now I come to think of it.
No News and Selective Ignorance
This positive constraint is an idea that first came to me from Tim Ferriss and his book The Four Hour Work Week, in which he advises going on a ‘low-information diet’, practising ‘selective ignorance’ and getting your news from waiters.
I rarely go to restaurants, but after a year of quiet experimentation I think Tim’s right. It is more rewarding to ask friends ‘What’s going on in the world?’ and to actually listen to their replies, rather than wasting hours alone hoovering up internet facts and expert analysis before regurgitating them as boorish ill-informed opinions myself.
This shouldn’t be considered an abdication from all arenas of knowledge, but the very specific area of knowledge that we call ‘The News’. Knowledge is important and, in certain circumstances, knowledge of current affairs is important. But that’s not what we’re given.
The State of Current Affairs
Over the course of the last few years, I’ve been getting increasingly angry about what is displayed on our screens. Why is all news bad? Why does the news show the world as a volatile and violent place, when the reality is often the opposite?
It can be quite bad to know “what’s happening” in the world if the person telling you those things has a morbid, borderline psychopathic interest in war, rape, murder, hate, controversy, scandal, paedophilia, sex, celebrity, fame and shame.
A quiet news day, just after Christmas, and for the first time in a year I browse the BBC News homepage. There are 12 news stories above the fold, 10 of which have what I’d call a negative valence: they describe either an outright cataclysmic disaster or a more minor variety of tragedy or conflict.
The two stories with a positive valence are that the UK stock market is performing better than expected and that dolphins are helping humans catch fish. Not such a good news story for the fish, presumably.
Only one of the 12 stories could be considered directly newsworthy for me: there is travel disruption across the UK due to snow.
But I’d find that out soon enough by looking out of the window, or when I arrive at the train station. Either it’s not a problem for me, or I’ll find out without recourse to the doomsdaying of the BBC. As it happens, it’s not snowing in London and I should be able to cycle to Crisis this afternoon without having to fit snow chains.
And that sums up the problem of ‘The News’ for me: 80% of it is miserable and 90% of it is irrelevant.
How Much Have I Missed?
Friends, family and strangers alike enjoy relaying important information, usually tailored to my personal interests, which is nice. Because everyone around me is so connected, I found out within minutes of the attack in Westminster and likewise about Theresa May’s snap election announcement.
Catching up and hearing “the news” from friends is both more interesting and more balanced. I’m just as likely (or more) to hear the news that someone’s become an auntie for the first time as I am to hear the news of Donald Trump launching a missile attack.
For me, that is the right balance: I’m far more interested and personally affected (I hope) by the former than the latter.
But the real test of the depth of my No News Year is a Quiz of the Year. In fact, for scientific rigour, let’s do two.
The BBC Quiz of the Year, in one, two, three, four parts. I got a spectacular 24/52 – but only because it was multiple choice. Guesswork aside, I knew only 2 answers and made 3 educated guesses. The remaining 19 answers that I guessed correctly is still better than you’d expect from probability alone, but not by much.
The Observer Quiz of the Year. This non-multiple choice quiz more accurately exposes my lack of news awareness this year. I got 7/85.
I’d be really interested if you give one or other of these quizzes a go. Let me know your scores, and how much you follow the news. Why not make 2018 a No News New Year?
Literally as well as figuratively, no news is good news.
If you want to think about the other crap things that might happen when you read the news, check out this piece by Swiss novelist Rolf Dobelli.