So much news, so little knowledge. Our awareness of current affairs is dismal, claimed two reports last week. Helen Fielding took to the streets to as k a few testing topical questions
"Grozny?" A business consultant in a smart suit and his forties, was declaring confidently.

"Yup. I can tell you that . It's the capital of Bosnia Herzegovinia, and it's ethnic cleansing. The Muslims are fighting the Christians."

"It's the Kurdish capital and the Muslims are attacking it," was another thought.

"It's Soviet and the Turks are fighting the Muslims?"

"It's in Serbia, and the Russians are bombarding it."

"Is it Shi-ite?"

I was doing a straw poll in Nottingham, London and Milton Keynes, asking a cross-section of people about what they actually knew. Looking at an unmarked map, a female design assistant thought Mexico was in Alaska, a manager put Israel in Pakistan and a community development officer thought Iraq was in South America and Alaska was Israel. A former police officer explained that the Rwandan refugee exodus was caused by a drought, and a 23-year-old student explained that the problem in Israel was that the Palestinians had come in after the Second World War and chucked the Israelis out.

What in the World is Going On? is the title of a report published this week by the Third World & Environment Broadcasting Project, supported by leading agencies including Oxfam, Friends of the Earth, and Unicef. TV coverage, they worry, is shrinking fromworld affairs, becoming more parochial. In the last five years, the number of documentaries shown in Britain on international subjects, has fallen by well over a third. TV is the main source of information for 82 per cent of us. What sort of knowledge is ending up in our heads?

Another of the week's crop of reports suggests that even when information is frequently on screen, there is no easy progression from screen to head. There is no shortage of politics on the television, but in an NOP survey for Radio 1 FM's Newsbeat, almost a third of under- 35s questioned put their apathy about politics down to "Not knowing enough about [it]."

"The problem is over exposure," Sue Westley, a 22-year-old design assistant told me in Nottingham. "You keep hearing things over and over again, and after a while it just goes in one ear and out the other." As a journalist colleague remarked "I spend my entire life covering up for things everyone else knows, but I don't." The truth is that they probably don't know either.

It used to be common knowledge that there was such a thing as common knowledge: that drawn from the available sea of things to know, there was a particular pondful which most people in the country would have in their heads. Could it be, that as the amount of available information grows, the sea of knowledge is evaporating into a murky mist? There is far too much to know, everyone, overfaced, is plumping for a personal selection, and the common knowledge pond is beginning to shrink into a tiny puddle.

It is almost easier to find commonality in things people expect themselves to know, but don't, than in those they do. In the centre of Nottingham, 19 of the 20 people I interviewed didn't know the name of the Home Secretary. But nine knew the name of theperson Hugh Grant is going out with. Only one knew why all those Rwandan people had ended up in refugee camps in the summer, whereas ten knew that the person who the Princess of Wales danced with in a video she gave to Prince Charles was Wayne Sleep.

It seemed that people shared a common blur of impressions, only occasionally focusing in and becoming specific. A photograph of the Israeli Prime Minister, standing next to Yasser Arafat by way of a clue, produced a sea of half-remembered configurations.

"Yikshat Shamir?", "Menakin Bevan?", "Shabag Rabin?", "Shrirran Perez?" People groped towards Hugh Grant's girlfriend in much the same way. "She's the one with the dress", "She's got safety pins on her."

After all that fuss and worry, only three people knew what Clause IV was, while others waxed impressionistic: "Trying to represent socialist ideology?", "Something to do with spreading things out amongst the people?" "Is it one member one vote?" said Robina Varley, an accountant in her 40s. "I can't believe I don't know this. I know the names of two actresses but not the Prime Minister of Israel. Isn't it awful?" No, just normal.

A journalist I happened upon in the street didn't know the name of the Home Secretary. "Douglas Hurd?" Happily for me I'd found out all the answers from the news library. Happily for Michael Howard, the issue people focused on was not the prisons but hisspectacles. "He's got glasses, hasn't he? It's not David Mellor is it?" "Hmmmm ... Mellors?" "Is it Geoffrey somebody?" - and after all that worrying about what people thought of him after the Parkhurst debacle. All he needs to do is get a pair of contact lenses and he'll be laughing.

Katie Bagguley, a 23-year-old student of Leisure (really), explained: "If you're watching the news and you see something that interests you, you focus on it. Otherwise you're still watching, but actually you've switched off. If a country's on the front page of the paper you'll know about it, then you just forget. Somalia was in for a while, you see, wasn't it?"

Beverley Roberts, in her fifties, who was collecting money for an animal rescue organisation, laughed and said: "I like to watch the news but most of it goes in one ear and out the other. I know about things I like, and I like human stories." She was confident on the question of who sucked Fergie's toes, but, when it came to what did the IRA want? -" They want blowing up. I don't know what they want but I think it's terrible."

Beverley Roberts, along with many others, thought that 95 per cent of Third World children were starving. Most people gave a figure above 60 per cent. Only two put it under 50. In fact the percentage (given by Unicef in the early Nineties) is between 1 and 2 per cent. "That's the television for you," said Katie Bagguley. "Every time you see a kid in Africa it's starving." And images of starving Africans still seem to mean just one thing. Why did all those Rwandans end up in the refugee camps? "Drough t." "The rains had failed and the aid wasn't getting through." Fifty per cent of people had no idea. The Rwandans were just starving.

When a story had become a personal story, like a soap, that's when it seemed to have meaning. All 20 people recognized Nelson Mandela from a photograph, and everyone knew who he was and what he did, apart from just one who said: "He's that bloke who justgot out of the nick, isn't he?"

Maxime Frances, 31, a community development officer who thought Alaska was Israel on a map, and didn't know who the leader of the opposition was, cheerfully explained why. "These things have nothing to do with me. I'm a single mother, black, working withhomelessness and young people on the streets. I'm not interested in people at the top. They don't help us. The people who help are local people, big companies like Boots. I could name you 30 friends of mine that don't vote. I like soaps, I know about jazz, and soul and fashion."

What seems to be replacing common knowledge is a range of selections of knowledge which function almost like DNA codes. You could classify people into age, social background, profession by their knowledge selection. This could be a factor in the massive popularity of pub and TV quizzes. Your knowledge has become an intriguing, individual commodity: something you can play with, barter with, compete with.

In the Black Horse pub in Milton Keynes, Bucks, on Tuesday night, the local quiz team was competing with the team from the Cock Inn at Wootton. The two teams of four faced each other across tables with name cards, and a quizmaster in the middle, saying "

Incorrect", "I'm sorry that's a bonus" - TV style.

The Black Horse team didn't know, alas, the name of the actress who played Alf Garnett's neighbour Min in Till Death Us Do Part. The Cock knew it was Patricia Hayes but not the name of the tax scrapped in 1973. The Black Horse knew it was Purchase Tax, but not that a butterfly's sense of taste lies in its feet - which the Cock had no problem with.

"There's so much information now," said the captain of the winning home team, Rod Fine, who works in computer software. "I think a major part of the appeal of quizzes is just that it has become extremely interesting to people to see what they know, and what other people know. It's not a question of being academic. The secret for a good quiz team is to have the right range of complementing areas of knowledge."

Neither team had got it quite right, though. When they came to our quiz, an impressive six of the eight players knew the name of the Home Secretary, eight of them went on and on with detailed explanations of Clause IV, but one couldn't even recognize Camilla Parker Bowles, a shaming six didn't know that the person Princess Diana danced with in her video was Wayne Sleep, and a hideous eight didn't even recognize the photograph of Hugh Grant's girlfriend.

Matters of the day? What we asked people THE QUESTIONS

1) Who is the Home Secretary?

2) Who is the Leader of the Opposition?

3) Grozny is the capital of where?

4) What is going on there?

5) Sarajevo is the capital of where?

6) A suicide bomb went off last week. Which country was it in, and who claimed responsibility?

7) Who is against who in Israel?

8) What caused the refugee crisis in Rwanda last summer?

9) What are the names of the two peoples who were fighting?

10) What percentage of the world's children would you say were starving?

11) Is the rate of population growth in the developing world: a) increasing, b) decreasing, or c) staying the same?

12) What, in a nutshell, does the IRA want?

13) What is Clause IV about?

14) Can you find Israel, Iraq and Mexico on a map?

15) Who sucked Fergie's toes?

16) What is Kenny Dalglish's job?

17) What is the name of Hugh Grant's girlfriend?

18) Who is Camilla Parker Bowles?

the answers

1) Michael Howard 2) Tony Blair 3) Chechnya 4) The Russians are trying to crush the breakaway republic of Chechnya 5) The capital of Bosnia 6) The bomb exploded in Israel and responsibility was claimed by the Muslim fundamentalist group Islamic Jihad 7) The Jews and the Palestinians 8) Civil war and the massacre of Tutsis by the majority Hutus 9) Tutsis and Hutus 10) Between one and two per cent 11) The rate of population growth in the developing world is decreasing 12) The British out of Ireland; and aunited Ireland 13) nationalisation 14) Israel borders the eastern Mediterranean, Iraq is at the top of the Arabian Peninsular; Mexico is in the isthmus south of the USA 15) John Bryan 16) Manager of Blackburn Rovers FC 17) Elizabeth Hurley 18) Mistress of the Prince of Wales (allegedly)

Who is the Leader of the Opposition?

Sample guesses: "John Major, is it? Is he in charge?" "It's on the tip of my tongue, what's his name again - I keep thinking Bambi" "Nope. No idea"

Answer: Tony Blair What is happening in Grozny?

Sample guesses: "Ethnic cleansing isn't it? Muslims fighting Christians."

"It's in Serbia ... the Russians are bombing it." "Turks fighting the Muslims."

Answer: Russians are trying to crush the breakaway republic of Chechnya Can you find Israel on the map?

Sample guesses (marked with crosses): in Alaska, Pakistan, Somalia.

Answer: Bordering Eastern Mediterranean (marked with dot)

Who is the Home Secretary?

Sample guesses: "Mellors?" "Is it Geoffrey something?" "Oh dear, I should know this but I don't."

Answer: Michael Howard What caused the Rwandan refugee crisis last summer?

Sample guesses: "It was a drought wasn't it? Shortage of food." "There was a drought and the aid wasn't getting through." "Dunno."

Answer: Civil war and massacre of Tutsis by majority Hutus Who is this woman?

Sample guesses (the one almost everyone knew the answer to): "Oh yes. That's our Camilla"

Answer: Camilla Parker Bowles