No News is New News
Julian Baggini thinks about reporting
The news shares one odd characteristic with formula one: both are simultaneously fast-moving and predictably the same. With newspapers out every day and news bulletins in the broadcast media every hour, journalists are constantly focussing on the 'latest development'. Yet at least as important to understanding the news is an appreciation of the underlying issues, and these hardly seem to change at all. Take, for instance, these topical news stories: celebrity presenter sacked after revelations about his private life; western nations prepare for controversial war; the England football manager's position under threat because of non-football issues. We could be talking about Angus Deayton, Iraq and Sven Goran Eriksson. But we could just as easily be back in the late 1990s talking about Blue Peter presenter Richard Bacon, Yugoslavia and Glenn Hoddle. Nor has this happy coincidence been entirely manufactured: those last three stories just happen to be three I chose a few years ago as examples for the introduction to my book about the philosophy behind the headlines. Happily for me, the fact that they find echoes in the news stories at the time of writing is more evidence for my thesis that the big issues underlying the ever-changing headlines remain stubbornly the same.
To understand these big issues better we need to draw upon many resources, not least a good grasp of the facts. For instance, how many of us can claim in all honesty not to find our opinions about the Palestinian uprising compromised by the recognition that our knowledge of the history of the problem is far from complete? And in the arguments between 'luddites' and advocates of new scientific technologies, how many of us really understand the science, the risks and the principles of risk management?
The neglected resource I am concerned to draw attention to is philosophy, because philosophical problems surround us all the time, whether we recognise them or not. In the three examples already mentioned, this is perhaps most obvious in the case of war. In determining the rights and wrongs of attacking Iraq much depends upon our assessment of the facts. Does Saddam Hussein pose a real risk? Would an attack lead to a wider conflagration?
But there are also ethical issues which can only be resolved by philosophy: can we justify the inevitable loss of innocent Iraqi lives in order to prevent a threat of greater harm in the long run? Is it morally justifiable for nation states to start a pre-emptive war without international support? These issues become concrete in particular cases, but by thinking long and hard about them in their more general form we can be better prepared to come to the right decisions when specific dilemmas arise.
The debauched celebrity issue takes us to the heart of moral philosophy. Is morality concerned with what consenting adults do in private or does it only concern actions which cause harm to others? Even if morality does reach down to our private lives, is it morally justifiable to punish someone in their public life for their private misdemeanours? Who even has a right to know about what people get up to when they're not working? The same kinds of questions arise when we think about Sven's dalliance with the irrepressible Ulrika Jonsson.
It is not entirely the news media's fault that these underlying issues do not get the full attention they deserve. After all, the very fact that they are, if not perennial, then at least extremely enduring, makes them very poor candidates for print and broadcast articles that are by their nature all about what is new. The problem is not that we need more philosophers on Newsnight but that we need to find a place for philosophy somewhere in the broad conversation about issues of public concern.
Traditionally, philosophers have not been very good at participating in this conversation, being rather too fond of esoteric language and being so careful not to commit a logical mistake that their positive contributions get lost in a forest of qualifications and semantic distinctions. But the hunger is there: in a recent survey over 75 per cent of mainly American and British philosophers agreed that they needed to do more to address the concerns of society.
So in theory we have a happy coincidence of supply and demand: we need a greater understanding of the philosophy behind the headlines and there is an army of academics ready to help provide it. Why then do I not feel more optimistic about an imminent wiser dawn? Mainly because I cannot see the forums in which philosophers will be able to make their contribution. They look doomed to occasional radio chats with Lord Bragg and to stalk the pages of relatively small-circulation periodicals such as New Humanist (frequently), The Philosophers' Magazine (all the time) and Prospect (occasionally).
Let us not be defeatist however and move forward the campaign to take the new out of the news. Let our motto be "No news is new news". If the idea catches on, it may itself make the news. But then the idea that there is no new news would itself become new news, thus proving itself to be wrong. And so the fear of falling into logical contradiction once again paralyses the evangelising philosopher at first base.