This year I’ve been reading a different news source each week. It’s a deliberate effort to break out of my own personal internet-curated echo chamber and see the world through different eyes.
One thing I’ve discovered is that if you just want to know what’s going on in the world, there is something to be said for reading the international news section of a foreign paper. You’ll get major events from politics, war zones, natural disasters, business news and even sport. You won’t miss anything important – but you will miss lots of trivial local news, and that’s a good thing.
Take a recent example. Earlier this year there was a nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy now living in exile in Britain – a fairly extraordinary event and one that was widely reported around the world. Prime Minister Theresa May denounced Russia in the Houses of Parliament, as it was a Russian nerve agent, and there is precedent for former spies meeting sticky ends on British soil. Most of this reached the international press.
If you were in Britain, you were treated to a lot more. After May’s speech, the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, asked if the government had any evidence of Russian involvement. A fair question, since this was going to – and did – kick off a serious diplomatic incident. Corbyn’s comments became a news story in themselves.
Then of course the government attacked Corbyn, with members of the Cabinet taking the opportunity to call him a Russian sympathiser and a traitor of various kinds. That was a story, then the next day there were more articles with MPs defending Corbyn or distancing themselves. Here’s a quote from the BBC on April 18th:
Boris Johnson accused Jeremy Corbyn of refusing to “unequivocally” blame the Russian state, describing him as “the Kremlin’s useful idiot”.
But Labour said Mr Johnson was the “idiot” having “undermined his own government’s position” on the evidence.
So that’s all very mature. Three news cycles out from the initial story, we have politicians shouting ‘You’re an idiot’, ‘no you’re the idiot’ at each other, and the newspapers dutifully telling us all about it.
Unless you’re an international paper, in which case you probably reported the original incident. Follow up stories might cover diplomatic fall-out between Russia and Britain, but they won’t cover the silly squabbling in-between. That’s just noise.
Most political stories have these ripples of noise. Government announces new policy. Opposition says it’s the worst idea ever. Government defends policy. That’s three rounds of news stories for only one actual development. Social media has made this effect worse, because journalists can harvest reactions and backlashes live as they happen, propelling stories on no matter how little substance there may be behind it all.
This isn’t just a waste of time. It insults our intelligence as citizens. It feeds cynicism and apathy. We lose trust in politicians, and that erodes democracy. It’s poisonous to civic society, and probably to our own mental health and happiness as well.
But it’s easily avoided. If you read the news about your country from a foreign news outlet, there’s a whole lot less noise.