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Mathias Marx

Alain de Botton: Philosophy and the news

30 January 2014 Rebecca White

"One doesn't need to hunt for gaffes, one should be out discerning and analysing the true mistakes."

Next week writer, philosopher and entrepreneur Alain de Botton is hosting a Platform event at the National Theatre. He'll be talking about his new book, The News, as well as current problems with the media. We caught up with him ahead of the event...

London Calling: What do you find most troubling about the way that news is reported in our culture?

Alain de Botton: I'd say there were three things. Firstly, we've got a real problem popularising important news. Serious journalists often think that what is central to their jobs is to go out and find out 'the truth', then everything in society will change. But in my view, in this distracted, sensation hungry age, the real task is subtly but importantly different. There are lots of truths out there already that people don't care much about at all. This is really fatal in a democracy, because politicians have to rely on people caring about issues in order that they can have the popular mandate to change things. So in my eyes, a really important task for journalists is to learn how to make what's important seem interesting - to a large audience. We have too many stories that are 'important' but entirely boring to us, because journalists haven't worked hard enough to connect them to our own interests.

Secondly, it's so hard to focus on what matters, because we have a news agenda which deluges us with information, but makes it extremely unlikely that we can track an issue across time and keep an eye on it. It's almost as if there were two ways to render a society supine, apolitical and resigned to the status quo: either you censor all news, or else you flood people with so much news, they can't focus on anything. We're in danger of this latter scenario.

Thirdly, we have political news that is obsessed with a Watergate style of journalism which identifies what's wrong in society with active skullduggery: it's always looking out for crooks. The problem with this is that a lot of what's wrong in society is the work not of crooks, but just people who have the wrong ideas, or a lack of imagination or have grown stale and uninspired. The point of journalism shouldn't always be to hunt out scandal because errors don't crop up in 'scandal' shaped forms all the time. What's important is to look for errors in more subtle, pervasive but invisible forms.

LC: Do you think there is too much ridicule focused on people in the media when they make a mistake?

Alain: There is a species of what I might call gaffe journalism, which locks onto an error made quite innocently by someone, and it takes this error to be the truth about a situation, even though it's clear to all parties that this is never what was meant. This is adolescence having a second life through journalism. It's particularly sad, because there are real errors out there. One doesn't need to hunt for gaffes, one should be out discerning and analysing the true mistakes, which have nothing in common with gaffes.

LC: Do you think it can be changed for the better?

Alain: Journalism can definitely be changed for the better - that's what my book is about. But whereas many people focus on changing the producer, my emphasis is on changing the consumer. Think of an analogy with food. One way to get food consumption to improve is to legislate and control the producers, but another - and in my view better way - is to educate consumers into what is genuinely good. Right now, we tend to be very undiscerning consumers of news, not quite understanding what went into producing it or grasping its full effect on our psyches.

LC: Had the accident of birth meant that you existed in a previous age to ours, do you think you would have been drawn to working within a religion?

Alain: Yes, possibly, in that religions were the place that dealt with the psyche, which is what I'm interested in. I am a committed atheist and think that what has replaced religion is culture: it's through the study of culture that we can get the best insights into how we might optimally live and die.

LC: Art & culture is referenced a lot in your work as a way of helping us understand the contemporary world. What role do you think theatre plays within this?

Alain: Theatre is in a sense the first and primary art form with a therapeutic mission. Think of Aristotle's extraordinary analysis of the role of tragic theatre: in his view, it's not about entertainment, it's not about art for art's sake. Tragic theatre is being asked to heal the nation, lift people's hearts, open their powers of empathy and socialise them in the widest sense. This is a gloriously ambitious programme for theatre, one I fully agree with.

LC: What is the best piece of theatre you have seen recently?

Alain: The National Theatre’s current production of King Lear - by far.

LC: What do you love about living in London?

Alain: You never have a sense that life is elsewhere.

LC: How do you think having The School of Life's headquarters in London effects the content that is produced and the ways it is delivered?

Alain: The School is now a global organisation, with branches in Paris, Amsterdam, Antwerp, Melbourne, Istanbul, Belgrade and Sao Paolo. Nevertheless, we began in London and we take from London two things: firstly, stylishness (we believe in making emotional knowledge attractive and compelling.) And secondly, a light touch: we are not 'heavy' even though we deal with incredibly serious things.

LC:The School of Life is a successful cultural enterprise. Do you think that cultural and social enterprise could revolutionise the way that we work and think about work on a universal scale?

Alain: Absolutely, culture can change the world.

LC: Who inspires you (from the contemporary world)?

Alain: Anyone who has set up and successfully runs a  business in a meaningful area of the economy.

Alain de Botton will be at the National Theatre on Thursday 6 February 5.30pm

The philosopher will be discussing his new book, The News, and asking what is it we’re looking for when we read or watch the news – and is it doing us any good? It will be followed by a book signing. Further information available here.

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