Early in the preface to his meditation on news, Alain de Botton borrows from Hegel to make a startling assertion.
"In the developed economies," he says, "the news now occupies a position of power at least equal to that formerly enjoyed by the faiths."
Is that true? Or rather, could it possibly be true in any meaningful way? Getting a daily dose of near-fiction about a TV reality show doesn't sound like a religious observance. The faith at work in the urgent need to hear a football match report is almost a parody of belief. Even serious news, however you define it, doesn't quite have the appeal of eternal verities.
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De Botton has a point, nevertheless. Hundreds of millions of people do indeed tune in "religiously" to news, at fixed hours, in an attempt to understand their existence better. As the author also observes, "Once our formal education has finished, the news is the teacher." That's certainly an overstatement - books and the vast repositories of knowledge online provide other kinds of guidance - but it serves the case well enough. News matters profoundly.
It matters even when those served believe little of what they read, see or hear; when, rightly, they detect bias, self-interest, trash and propaganda on all sides; when they are disgusted by the choice of what is deemed to be important. The corruption of news "values" matters most to those who don't trust the news. They want the truth from their newspaper or their TV even more than the complacent believer in editorial omniscience.
So what is news? There are people at work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, trying to answer that question. They and their predecessors have been at it since at least the 17th century. The act that defines a newspaper editor is the choosing of one story to lead the edition. Then there's that unexamined word, "story". The phrase "great story" is journalism's highest praise. But what does it mean? A narrative with the power to produce the same reactions as memorable fiction? That obscures matters.
De Botton has some difficulties with his definitions of news. He identifies six categories - political, world, economic, celebrity, disaster, consumer - and attempts to state what "role" they might play for us, as though information is, or should be, a force for moral improvement. "The ambition of living a good adult life in a modern democracy," he writes, "requires that we take on board all kinds of knowledge to help us remain moral, self-aware and safe and to assist us in discharging our public and private responsibilities effectively."
Very noble. So how does the average front page of The Sun contribute to those ambitions? One of the transactions on which news depends is simple entertainment. That sober report on global income inequalities wins few contests for readers if it's up against tales of Nigella's marriage troubles. A great deal of what we call news satisfies sheer voyeurism, not the desire for the "good adult life".
The very fact that de Botton counts "celebrity" among his categories recognises a relatively new phenomenon in the universe of news. There were always a few individuals famous for being famous. Now we bear witness constantly to the invented lives of manufactured "personalities" - never just people - and call the narratives news. This is as true of the erstwhile quality press making a drama out of a few celebrity tweets as it is of any redtop.
De Botton might be indulging in irony, or just sarcasm, when he writes that idealised news of the famous "would make us envious in productive or measured ways", but he appears to be serious. He suggests that celebrity tales could remind us that a world in which kindness and respect prevail would be "the best cure for a longing for fame". But he knows, or should know, that the appetite for tittle tattle doesn't often qualify as edifying.
De Botton's book describes "a set of encounters with the news". He is neither proscriptive nor prescriptive about what we mean by what was once called "intelligence", but he is alert enough to nuance. Those who supply the commodity called news boast of their facts, but abhor bias. Yet what, asks the author, is so useful about a fact dispassionately delivered? "The issue is not that we need more of them, but that we don't know what to do with the ones we have."
That's not exactly true. It is one of those products of the internet age that sounds profound yet bears little examination. We are not swamped. We pick and choose, ignoring what fails to suit our needs and desires. Yet de Botton's book is founded on the idea we need guidance, in this age of media studies and 24-hour news channels, in order to cope with torrents of information: hence the subtitle. If billions were wading in this river of facts each day wouldn't they be, just possibly, a little better-informed? The evidence is slight.
De Botton's book is discursive. For stretches it amounts to little more than thoughts inspired by some news story or other. Why is political news treated - so it is claimed - as boring? Why should we care about places we will never see and people we will never meet, people whose triumphs and disasters have no bearing on our lives? Why should we care about news from a place called culture?
The News too often settles on aphoristic, platitudinous answers to random questions aroused, it seems, by some of the stories we call news. That inquiry concerning culture? De Botton comes up with a paragraph - I won't quote it all - commencing with the assurance that "Art is a tool to help us with a number of psychological frailties which we would otherwise have trouble handling..." To which the short response is: no, it's not.
The author's desire to put philosophical techniques to practical use is no doubt admirable; his eagerness to contrive self-help manuals from the discipline is annoying. In this exercise, however, a failure to come up with a useful definition for the subject at hand undermines every insight. If you lacked an idea of what news might be before commencing The News, you would not emerge the wiser.
For example: "When reporting on a tragedy, the news tends to make dreadful conduct seem unique to a particular person." That's true, and fairly interesting. But perhaps a hack's cliché involves older wisdom. Each tragedy is indeed unique. Even lazy journalism keeps that truth in mind amid the flood of facts by which, so the author reckons, we risk being overwhelmed. The horror, the victims and the observers are discrete events.
De Botton is at his sketchy best when dealing with "personalization", the ability, born of technology, to pick news according to taste and to screen out what offends or fails to entertain. If your information comes only from computers, this horror is readily available. No more hierarchies of big-shot editors and lofty columnists. Just news tailored to the self-confirming bias and prejudices of the individual. Ironically enough, The News itself is a fine example of the phenomenon.