Alain de Botton’s The News: a review

Alain de Botton has made a name for itself espousing what critics tend to view as ‘pompous’ and ‘proselytising’–somewhat, but not completely, ironic for the author of Religion for Atheists.

It is with this excess baggage that the author of The Art of Travel and A Week at the Airport comes to write The News: A User’s Manual, a fairly light tome (255 pages excluding index) which starts with the premise that news has replaced religion as society’s main concern.

This is just as well, for as de Botton writes in Religion for Atheists:

For 1.6 billion Buddhists, there has been no news of world-altering significance since 483 BC. For their Christian counterparts, the critical events of history came to a close around Easter Sunday in AD 30, while for the Jews the line was drawn a little after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Roman general Titus in AD 30. (137)

That’s a lot of recaps between then and now.

In The News, de Botton comes up with the belief that many a hipster will try violently to disagree with: that news is reduced to the lowest form for the broadest appeal, and Important Things such as the chancellor’s impromptu remarks in the House or the dwindling jobs numbers are left in the dust by people who are far too busy to pay attention. He then proposes how to reframe the news in six areas—politics, world, economics, celebrity, consumption (i.e. reviews) and disaster.

Let’s get the flaws in his argument out of the way.

Obviously, de Botton never had an education deemed up to scratch by the good folk at the VCAA, for he seems to labour under the notion that secondary schools don’t bother with media training:

We are never systematically inducted into the extraordinary capacity of news outlets to influence our sense of reality and to mould the state of what we might as well—with no supernatural associations—call our souls. (12)

I, for one, vividly recall spending a good part (the good part?) of Year 12 highlighting and annotating black-and-white copies of Herald Sun op-eds about childhood obesity (thanks, Mr Collins!). And then, of course, mine was the year that the VCAA plagiarised Helen Razer’s article on tattoos under the byline of Helen Day for the end-of-year English exam. So, de Botton arguing that (generally speaking) no-one has media training of any kind is a falsity.

De Botton has this moment where he kind of forgets about the whole internet thing. He holds fast to the churlish critique that 24-hour news–because so much news happens at 2am on Friday morning–is killing context. In point of fact, there has never been more context available. Between the whole ‘living’ thing, no-one is compelled to watch ABC News 24 the whole time. Although if one were compelled, at least one would enjoy the flipping chyron instead of the scrolling chyron. Seriously. No-one reads one letter at a time. CNN, the BBC and Sky News are all serial offenders. Stahp!

Foreign affairs

Have you ever had one of those trips where you just drive down to the coast and hang out with mates for the weekend? It’s one of those things you mention in passing, right? “Oh, me and Paul and Hannah went down to Lorne just to chill out for a coupla days,” you say. “Oh yeah,” they reply, looking at their phone but saying something to be polite.

Now what happens if you go to Uganda for research for your next book? It takes time and money to organise, so the plan would be to feature it, wouldn’t it?

Well, de Botton does go to Uganda, and the reason he does so is because he feels as if the country is under-reported. (One can’t help but recall Homer Simpson when, while spinning a globe, he made a cheap jibe at Uruguay’s expense, which he just happened to land on.)

I’m sure de Botton neither spun a globe listlessly nor made any cheap jibes thereupon, but the Uganda trip barely rates a mention in his contention that news from overseas is less likely to resonate (and therefore draw clicks and eyeballs towards it) than domestic news.

It’s probably pertinent at this stage of proceedings to point that de Botton is not a writer who deals with innovative ideas–instead, he confirms, in writing, things that we more or less suspect to be true. His expertise is in weaving narratives together and using those narratives as the writerly version of hot lemon tea and chicken soup on an icy winter’s day.

The problem with this is that he can’t decide whether he’s writing about world news or foreign news. The difference here is vital–as he well knows. ‘World’ is vibrant, inclusive, cosmopolitan. ‘Foreign’ is exclusive and fearful. No serious journal of record would—or should—go around advertising its ‘foreign’ news service. In short, de Botton sets up a strawman because there is nothing worth critiquing or criticising in the idea of world news.

Review with Alain de Botton

Later on in the book, de Botton comes to look at what he terms ‘consumer journalism’–that is, the journalism of what we are consuming.

De Botton says that instead of being mindless, reviewers should consider the psychological states that the product both intends to elicit and actually elicits. (Nokia mobile phones and Melbourne’s public transport system would have to exclude themselves from review.)

This is an interesting principle that de Botton brings up: newsmakers should consider the mental wellbeing of their consumers very carefully. Whether it verges on this side propaganda is one discussion to continue.

I guess that’s why they call it the news

It’s hard to say whether enough’s being done to ensure that the consumer of news isn’t overwhelmed by what de Botton calls “the roar of humanity”.

It can be a bit much: de Botton is not shy about analysing the downfall of a convicted possessor of child porn, and some of the featured headlines are similarly distasteful.

Thankfully, plenty of services exist to calm the agitated mind in the cases of depression and anxiety. And the media recognises the importance of advertising the services of Lifeline and other important organisations after a story about a suicide.

De Botton’s point is that for people who are affected by the distasteful story inasmuch that their only awareness of it is mediated by the news, the story will serve a lesson as useful as that of Oedipus Rex–something to be absorbed in the hope that it doesn’t happen to us. None of us consciously choose to be involved in tragedy, anyway–which may or may not strengthen the case for determinism–so maybe tragic news tells us how to function when these events become a bit more personal. What’s it like for the sister of the paedophile, or the cousin of the sports star made a quadriplegic? In this sense, the news becomes educative, which means public broadcasters such as the BBC and ABC are fulfilling at least one of their three criteria.

At any rate, de Botton continues the postmodern story that news is pretty much just that: a story. At best, the news may be regarded as creative non-fiction–a tale told for purposes other than its own sake; almost a moral.

The Doctor – who?

Given that de Botton is interested in the human psyche–and why not, when you get people like Woody Allen and Kevin Rudd–his final prescription is to allow people the awe-inspiring power to choose their own news.

His example is Google News, which does allow you to filter out certain articles, but other examples could include people who, I don’t know, read Bob Ellis and Larry Pickering or whoever.

His only condition is that, because

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the news is so powerful–one internet factoid tells me that people who regularly follow the news have depression because they are more in touch with reality, something, something–trained psychotherapists take charge and charge their patients for doing so. If so, the media will be like that episode of The Simpsons where Homer lands in an alternate universe and Flanders is the despotic dictator controlling the media. Except in this case, it will be more like Denis Walter and Bruce and Phil on 3AW controlling the media. What a shuddering thought. Sorry, fans of Denis Walter and Bruce and Phil.


De Botton writes The News: A User’s Manual in his usual wan-prosaic style, which is what I expected. But this time, the style outweighs the substance.

Like that Le Corbusier house he analysed in The Architecture of Happiness, his latest book looks the gods but has no internal core.

No real discussion was entered into about what’s really eating news media–the flawed business model. This is hardly surprising, as he believes people pay no attention whatsoever to the economy. And if he believes that, then he’s hardly going go against that belief. Hardly any interviews were conducted–this is a book about how interviews are conducted!–with relevant sources like what he did in the cleverly-titled The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work.

This is not about a would-be journalist getting protective. The real story lies in why de Botton has produced such turgid copy.

Cameron Magusic (@Cameron_Magusic) is an RMIT journalism student currently taking a leave of absence. He wishes to thank Penguin Australia for providing a copy of the book to review.

Image via Flickr.

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