The illusion and delusion of information

Taken from a talk given by Roger Graef, the writer and documentary-maker as part of a series on BBC Radio 4

Share

A few years ago I sat in a bleak neon-lit community hall in Alaska, watching members of the Inuit tribe - dressed in basketball jackets, T-shirts and jeans - try to reconstruct their traditional naming ceremony from fragments of fading memory. Wearing beautiful head-dresses and cloaks over their casual clothes, they stood in front of the Pepsi machine and haltingly evoked a past in which time was not parcelled out in scarce units.

A few years ago I sat in a bleak neon-lit community hall in Alaska, watching members of the Inuit tribe - dressed in basketball jackets, T-shirts and jeans - try to reconstruct their traditional naming ceremony from fragments of fading memory. Wearing beautiful head-dresses and cloaks over their casual clothes, they stood in front of the Pepsi machine and haltingly evoked a past in which time was not parcelled out in scarce units.

Their chants used the language banned by the US for 70 years. Occasionally they stopped to ask an elderly grandmother if she could remember anything more. It was desperately moving - like watching their culture being given mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

This is the global village Canadian commentator Marshall McLuhan promised in the Sixties. We're joined up from Siberia to Salford. But what is the architecture in this virtual global village? A multiplicity of cultures feed into it but every day and everywhere it is filtered into American English and the limited discourse of this new media. As I struggle through acres of unwanted adverts on the Net I feel as depressed as I do wandering through shopping malls that have displaced markets and high streets.

So, we are bombarded with information on every side, but what of its quality? Take Europe. It may never have been a subject close to British hearts. But now, apart from football, beef and corruption scandals, Eurotrash is about as close to regular coverage as Europe gets.

Now a game: name one European critic or political commentator who has regular space in any British newspaper. See how many prime ministers or leading writers from the Continent you can name. Does it matter? I think it matters rather more than our obsession with the personal peccadilloes of UK politicians and their spin doctors.

This is a 21st century paradox. Just as our world is expanding and growing more complex, our conceptual tools for dealing with it are becoming simplified. We now have access to many other versions. It may be impossible to find foreign news other than scandals or disasters in most American or British papers. But at a click we can call up any European newspaper we could read. But how many of us do it in ways that inform our public discourse? If that is reduced to exchanging clichés and soundbites, where does that leave the rest of us who want to hear more?

At an ITN Christmas party some years ago, we all stopped talking to watch the news. It included the usual announcement about the balance of payments - this time going down. When it ended, a friend used the silence to ask whether this was good news or bad news. No one responded.

Now it's the turn of the euro.

With the possible exception of GM foods, I can't think of any other international issue likely to touch our lives more directly. We need to know more than who's for or against it, or its alleged threat to jobs. Now, this is technical stuff, but few journalists or politicians are up to explaining it. I doubt whether many know whether the euro is a good or bad thing. Nor can they find a revealing language in which to talk about it. If journalists and politicians aren't confident, how can we possibly understand?

Apart from terrorism, scandals, riots, and Royal visits, there is precious little national coverage of the things that matter to people in Wales and Northern Ireland.

Every paper thinks they know what their readers want and that is what they give them. But it is largely a closed world view. This is not just a media concern: it affects Government policy - because they all want readers' votes. That's why the press is rightly accused of exercising power without responsibility.

The internet and other new media of the 21st century offer us better access to information to challenge such distortions. But the distortions will be on offer too.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Games Developer - HTML5

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With extensive experience and a...

Recruitment Genius: Personal Tax Senior

£26000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Product Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Due to on-going expansion, this leading provid...

Recruitment Genius: Shift Leaders - Front of House Staff - Full Time and Part Time

£6 - £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a family ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Jeremy Corbyn could be about to pull off a shock victory over the mainstream candidates Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall   

Every club should be like Labour – you can’t join as a new member unless you’re already a member

Mark Steel
The biggest task facing Labour is to re-think the party's economic argument, and then engage in battle with George Osborne and his policies  

There's a mainstream alternative to George Osborne's economics

John Healey
A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

A Very British Coup, part two

New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms
What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist? Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories

What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist?

Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories
Chinese web dissenters using coded language to dodge censorship filters and vent frustration at government

Are you a 50-center?

Decoding the Chinese web dissenters
The Beatles film Help, released 50 years ago, signalled the birth of the 'metrosexual' man

Help signalled birth of 'metrosexual' man

The Beatles' moptop haircuts and dandified fashion introduced a new style for the modern Englishman, says Martin King
Hollywood's new diet: Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?

Hollywood's new diet trends

Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?
6 best recipe files

6 best recipe files

Get organised like a Bake Off champion and put all your show-stopping recipes in one place
Ashes 2015: Steven Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

Middlesex bowler claims Ashes hat-trick of Clarke, Voges and Marsh
Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Atwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works