Feed people enough misery and, not very surprisingly, they’ll end up being miserable and thinking that everything is bad; so it’s worth listening to the prophets who urge us to a more balanced view. When
I turned the radio on, some time between Christmas and New Year,
I discovered that Benjamin Zephaniah was guest editor on the Today programme, and he was discussing the relative merits of good and bad news with the arch-cynic, John Humphrys. Benjamin was urging the radio presenter to report more good news, instead of giving us an undiluted diet of bad news.
In the interview, Humphrys claimed that no one finds good news interesting, which is patently not true. He gave the example of ten aircraft setting out from LHR to the US, and all ten arriving safely. ‘There’ he declared triumphantly, ‘no one will be interested unless one of them crashes.’ What he failed to understand, of course, was that the item wasn’t news because it wasn’t new. Its lack of newsworthiness had nothing to do with whether it was a catastrophe or not; it failed to be news simply because there was nothing new about it. A similar number of aircraft make that journey every day.
Another example Humphrys put forward to support his view that good news isn’t worth reporting was of a powerful earthquake in which there was no loss of life. As the earthquake was new, this did constitute news – good news; and it’s possible that most people would be more interested in an earthquake that didn’t kill people than in one that caused massive casualties. A third story with which Humphrys taunted Zephaniah was of an elderly couple who were sharing their 100th birthday, and who had been married for something like 72 years. Fantastic. That really should be on the news: it’s happy, unusual and encouraging. Cynicism and depression are self-perpetuating, so we need to share some of the good things that happen in the world instead. I’ve just received an email from someone who was in Rome for the Taizé meeting of young adults over the New Year. The fact that 40,000 young people from many different traditions made the journey and spent several days talking and praying together somehow didn’t make it onto the radar of journalists who are always so quick to report the many failings and scandals of the Church and the waywardness of the young.
There’s an old expression sometimes bandied around by writers to the effect that ‘Happiness writes white’. In other words, great writing is more likely to come out of an unhappy state of mind than a happy one. I can never decide whether this is true or not, especially as I have personally produced decent work both when I’ve been heart-broken and when I’ve been euphoric. Zephaniah’s poetry encompasses the good and the bad, anger and celebration, and I think that’s the sort of diet that reflects the real world in which most of us live. There are also exceptions to the misery-mongering of the media. For example, there’s a newspaper called Positive News, which one can sometimes pick up in whacky places like Dartington, which redresses the imbalance in the rest of the media by reporting on good things that have happened.
Two young women have, tragically, been in the news recently: Malala Yousafzai and Jyoti Singh Pandey. Sadly, the young Indian medical student will slip into the mire of crime history and be forgotten by most of us within a few months – though not by those who loved her. Malala is ongoing news and we’ll continue to watch her with interest. Let’s hope that journalists, too, will continue to find her interesting as she returns to full health and continues with her courageous campaigning. But underlying both these appalling cases is a sub-text of gender inequality. We have achieved so much in the last century, but these stories remind us that there is still a long way to go before everyone accepts that girls have as much right to education as boys do, and that attractive young women are people of dignity and worth, whose bodies belong to themselves and no one else. If and when that equality and dignity are accepted as normal everywhere, that will certainly be good news worth sharing.
2013 is still a fairly new year, so I leave you with a snippet of one of the poems from my recent collection, festo: ‘Hope at year’s turning’:
hope springs eternal
leaps and bounds,
believes in bud and leaf and flower,
and puppy-like joyfully welcomes friend and foe.
Against all recent evidence I throw
myself into the arms of hope
for the new year.
Happy new year. My next blog (good news) will be from far across the sea.