Give us this day our news on the hour

The media constitute a form of secular worship that has pushed aside God ... and reporters are the priests of this cult of the ephemeral, says Kenneth Minogue
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Accused of pandering to the baser appetites for sex and violence, British press and television adopt the demeanour of the mischievous child: half apologetic, half glorying in their own audacity. And this very response illustrates the deeper problems of the media in our culture.

The problem is twofold. First, press and television have taught us the permanent enjoyment of a pleasure our ancestors knew hardly at all: the thrill of learning of new events, or developments in old ones. Second, our minds become scattered and sclerotic as we learn to understand our lives in ever-changing fragments of news and opinion, two or three columns long.

It was something of a gruesome breakthrough in this evolution when Ted Turner discovered that there was an audience for news 24 hours a day. The punters would put up with almost endless repetition so long as some little sliver of novelty - a new fact, an opinion slant - could keep the river of information ever new and refreshed.

The real point is that the media constitute a form of secular worship which has pushed aside the old God. Journalists are the servitors of what we most passionately worship: namely, change. The point can be easily made by pointing out that religion in newspapers, if it exists at all, is but one department among many others such as international news, travel, fashion and much else. Now the whole point of any religion is that it is a way of understanding the whole of life. It cannot just be a department.

Newspapers and television departmentalise everything, and that means that they are themselves the whole of life to which we respond.

They provide us with a stream of understandings of absolutely everything we get up to. This leads us to the conclusion that the media are themselves a form of religion. They reflect and amplify our most basic impulses and beliefs.

The difficulty in understanding this point results from the fact that the attack on Christianity in the last couple of centuries (by the Enlightenment, by Marx and other socialists, by positivist scientists) has named its target not as Christianity but as "religion" in general. Religion was attacked as bigotry and superstition, and intellectuals particularly often acquired a visceral hatred of it. They identify religion with the special characteristics of Christianity - belief in God, transcendence, miracles and so on. They contrasted religion with reason. To be explicitly religious in the modern West, certainly in Britain, is commonly to cut against popular opinion.

But this is not the end of the matter. Religions can be of many different kinds. In an important sense, all human beings have a religion - some overarching set of beliefs that explains why their daily doings have meaning for them. In our secular Western countries, then, we seem to have the remarkable - in one sense, impossible - phenomenon of large numbers of people without any religion at all.

It was, I think, the German philosopher Hegel who remarked, two centuries ago, that reading the newspapers had replaced the practice of daily prayers. Prayer is intended as a continuing relationship with God. The interesting question is what the newspapers connect us with. And the answer, I think, is that they connect us with the world, with fragments of science and history in a popularised form, and above all the community we live in - the thing called "society".

According to Marx, that was basically all there was. Man was essentially a social creature. All the main Western religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, in their many varieties) have been concerned with the ambiguous position of death, one of those universal facts that almost infallibly provokes a religious response. For Marx, death was simply a biological accident. What this means is that he conceived of human beings as organisms "plugged into" (as it were) the cultural and technological thing called "society", which continued over time with a changing cast of individuals. Human beings are born, and will die, but society is the one (more or less) immortal thing they are connected with.

The modern versions of secularism haven't quite followed Marx all the way. They are too much concerned with valuing happiness in the here and now for that. Happiness is their central concern, but since the conditions of happiness are infinitely variable, it translates into rights, needs, experiences and all the rest of what we demand from time to time.

The very term "society" - the medium within which we live according to current secular belief - functions in many ways just like that of "God" in Christianity. Margaret Thatcher slipped unwittingly into the secular version of atheistic blasphemy in remarking (talking about something quite different) that "there is no such thing as society". To doubt the reality of society is, according to this piety, to condemn us to greed and the solipsism of being merely isolated fragments rubbing against each other. "Only connect" said EM Forster. Society is what connects.

And the media are how we connect. Each day our minds are focused on the social ephemera which constitute our world, our society. Reporters are the priests of this cult, sustaining our communion with each other by telling us about the doings of others. Its theologians are the columnists who propose, oppose and then synthesise opinions on the basis of creative perversity, so that in one sense, every logically possible opinion gets tossed into the froth and contributes its momentary coloration to the spirit of the time.

Traditional religions, and some Continental philosophers, affirm that human existence is remarkably mysterious. They find ways of standing back from the flow of daily ephemera to reflect upon what the whole looks like. It is this possibility of detachment before the wonder of the world which is diminished by our lust for news. Everything (including my own argument) is understood in terms of two- or three-column blocks of argument and information. It is all hard, clear, fully explained, and gives us a little kick, but we know that tomorrow will bring new preoccupations and new arguments.

The author's study on the corrupting effects of the media, `The Silencing of Society: the true cost of the lust for news', is published by the Social Affairs Unit at pounds 7.50.