I was asked over the weekend to debate this question with Alain De Botton, (Author of News: A User's Manual), and Carl Honoré (Author of In Praise of Slowness), at the Bath Literary Festival. I was teamed with Carla Buzasi, editor of The Huffington Post UK. I thought you might be interested in my answer...
What is news? It is change, difference, event, development that was not there last time we looked.
Once we got it from the street, the neighbour, the stranger, the friend, the foe.
Then we learned communication, the written word. The recorded word, the live word transmitted from beyond the street.
In the beginning the transmission of the word was in the hands of the very few -allowing distortion, convolutions, destruction, as well as information.
We are amid the greatest revolution human life has ever known - the liberation of communication - in the hands of the many as well as that dangerous few. Yes of course the danger is there - the danger that what we call news maybe hijacked, distorted, lied about, propogandised.
But today I argue that we stand at the dawn of the golden age of what we have come to describe as journalism. The mediation of information by individuals, collectives, groups, whom WE have the very individual powers to choose. We don't - as I did as a child - have to take it from one source (in my case the only available paper at school) the Daily Express. We can thread our way through a myriad of sources to provide us with news.
News constantly educates, takes us beyond our self, beyond our community, into the lives of others. It quite literally makes the world go by.
News is no menace, it has facets of darkness, but deep patches of light too - where our own lives are illuminated the brighter by what we learn of others.
The human is no isolated organism. The sentient human has powers which in their entirety are denied other to other species. These powers of necessity force a need to know what others are doing to the capsule, Earth, in which each of us lives.
Without news, we lose all understanding of the all-uniting experience of living in this revolving sphere, together, each interdependent upon the other for good or ill.
News is the cartilage of life that enables both cohesion and fracture. We can adjust our human behaviour by what we learn of the needs, issues, capacities, and lives of others.
Strip away the access to information about life beyond our own experience and you threaten the entire world in which we live.
In his book, Alan de Botton complains about about the negativity of the twenty-four hour news cycle, can agonise about what news is. But I argue that his own philosophy and deep understand of humanity would be horrifyingly diminished by the absence of news. We can pluck the particular to make a general point. We can wish to murder Murdoch; to mash the Daily Mail; to groan about the BBC; to yell even at Channel 4 News. But in so doing let me offer you the living, crippled, programmed, world of news-less North Korea. Here there is no diversity of information, no drip feed of insights into the lives of others that allow balanced judgement in individuals. Welcome to a circumstance in which there is no information to challenge a dictated version of the norm - no news, no evidence of anything beyond self and state.
I admit that I find the gossip tabloid state and the 24/7 news cycle trying at times. But forced to choose between what can be exasperating drivel and what is constructed, mythologised, and forced between the ears of a population with no choice, and no other source, I'll even love the Daily Mail, and Murdoch's skyline. Because I have the CHOICE. I have the opportunity to reject all of it, and to self select, or travel intellectually in this digital age to find mediators I trust to inform me ceaselessly about change in the community, in the society,in the world in which I live.
This blog also appears on Jon Snow's Channel 4 Snowblog, and can be read here