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Good news is bad news

06/01/2014

Changing trains yesterday I found myself looking for a clock – you know, one of those big round things with hour, minute and second hands that you can use to check the time as you reach the platform and see if the train you want to catch is just about to pull out before your eyes (of course I have a watch, but it occasionally runs slow or fast, whereas in my experience station clocks keep time very accurately).

There was one, but it was at the far end of a platform that must have been half a kilometre long – and it was almost completely hidden from view not only by the metal struts and girders of the new station roof, but by kiosks selling refreshments, and above all by electronic screens showing ads and news (‘RAIL TV’ – one of those weird hybrids on a par with banks selling you insurance, or electricity companies selling you air tickets).

The idea that you’d rather see ads and news than, say, travel information while changing trains at a station is strange to me, but as so often I find myself at odds with the way the world is developing.

The conductor on a departing train – as usual, there were no railway staff to ask anywhere on the platform – pointed out an electronic clock stuck away in the corner of the TV screen. As I checked the tiny figures, my eye was caught by a succession of the day’s news items – at least, the ones RAIL TV saw fit to print.

There must have been a couple of dozen of them before the loop came round again. And what struck me was that practically every item was about death or destruction of one kind or another: ’50 killed in Baghdad’, ‘man dies in burning flat’, ‘pet rabbit drowned saving baby’ – well, not that last one, but you get the picture.

On any given day there are obviously hundreds or thousands of things that could be considered news, and by the laws of probability quite a few of them must be cheering or heart-warming. And the fact that time and space are limited inevitably means that a selection must be made. I always have to laugh when I hear tabloid or commercial TV editors say that the information they provide is merely a passive reflection of what is going on in the world (sometimes phrased as ‘what people want’) and that they don’t influence it in any way – for quite clearly they sit at an editorial meeting each day and decide what news they will and will not make available to the world. Their choice is bound to be slanted, for they all have an agenda. For instance, the commercial TV channels have an obvious interest in promoting a commercial view of society, and in playing down or ignoring any ‘inconvenient truths’ that might point in another direction. And vice versa.

So what conceivable interest could RAIL TV (presumably a commercial private company) have in focusing on all this bad news? Well, here’s a suggestion. In the aftermath of ’11 September’ our once-democratic world has had to get used to all manner of restrictions on human rights and freedoms in the supposed interests of protection against terrorism. Over the same period, the lack of restrictions on commercial rights and freedoms has – despite indignant denials by most of those responsible – brought the world’s economy to the pretty pass it is now in. In short, there has been a major shift in regulation and control away from the commercial towards the non-commercial sector, which has increasingly been depicted as a negative, harmful factor in ordinary people’s lives – an obstacle to development, progress and prosperity. Culture, higher education, social safety nets, public transport, women’s and gay rights, environmental protection and much else besides are portrayed as costly diversions from the real thing (I choose this advertising slogan advisedly) – indeed, some Dutch right-wing politicians have dismissed the whole lot as ‘left-wing hobbies’. In their eagerness to attack Islamic and other immigrants they have temporarily espoused gay rights as a ‘Dutch cultural tradition’, but this is just another of their many opportunistic stances – were they ever to gain power (shudder!), I have no doubt that we would once again be branded as enemies of society and treated accordingly.

Anyway, in such an atmosphere, commercialised news that focuses on dangers and threats rather than the opposite is surely only to be expected – for it encourages people to cling to the status quo and view anything else as suspect and menacing. ‘As you can see, we live in an increasingly dangerous world – but trust us to protect you, and don’t rock the boat by asking questions‘.

Shades of Orwell’s 1984? War is peace, hate is love, good news is bad news….

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