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

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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.

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