A number of my friends, so they tell me, have been virtually glued to their television sets and smartphones for the past five years. Since about the May 2014 federal budget, I guess, mainly from sheer disbelief at what they were observing, as its punitive intent seemed so foreign, and thus quite alarming, to their sense of what public life in Australia ought to be.
One can imagine how the results of last month’s federal election shot through groups such as these like a fissure of lightning across a convulsive night sky. For it had seemed a truism to them that poring over every stray paragraph in every morning paper, catching any learned syllable uttered by a talking head, taking note of every vile slur on social media, in short, in picking up every wink and nudge, had provided an insight that empowered them in responding effectively to a style of politics that had never played out in this country before.
I confess that as someone who earned most of his income over many years in the pursuit of news and its interpretation for half-interested readers, I was never going to be a news junkie when I retired, no matter how attractive or unmentionable I might have found any particular politician or policy position. Indeed, I often quote an incident from my early career when my paper sent me from Sydney to Melbourne to cover the conference of one of our major political parties. There I spent days in the company of one of Australia’s most respected journalists, a veritable household name for the thoroughness of her research and the lucidity of her opinions.
For hours we slaved on the climactic day, listening, reading, eavesdropping, hot on the trail of every tiny nuance that might complete the picture we were trying to describe or enhance the richness of its appeal to the reading public. By about 7:30pm or 8pm, I was pretty sure that I had as good a grasp as was possible — short of sharing pillow talk with a minister of the realm — in providing our readers with a cogent and believable summary of the day’s events. Red wine and pasta seemed to me, and another exhausted colleague, a satisfactory reward for 12 hours’ hard yakka.
Not so my esteemed companion. Whatever was driving her, whether it was some arcane factlet out there in the ether that might change the course of human history I do not know. Whether she found such a nugget of information I never bothered to inquire. All I knew was that I was dog-tired and believed I had a handle on a story that was as close to accuracy as was necessary for a reader to make their own informed judgement. If I didn’t, if I missed the bus by slinking off to a trattoria instead, then I would have to take it on the chin from my editor.
To return to the present, it seems that a growing number of people, decent people, worried people, are starting to feel the same way — that hanging on every word and image that disturbs, however briefly, the ebb and flow of public polity, might have done little to prevent the outcome they had dreaded. Indeed, it might even be argued that such intensity, bordering on obsession in some cases, might even have been counter-productive.
It would appear the election-night disbelief of some people might now be hardening into a phobia about news-junkiness itself, as the once enthralled fight for the off-button to blot out formerly compulsive viewing like The Project, 7:30, Q&A, Insiders and the like. As it happens, this trend is not a peculiarly Australian phenomenon, as I have found online is packed with articles from writers, mainly American, who have put themselves on an abstemious news-free diet, in a number of cases for several years.
The catalyst for this development, it will come as no surprise, has been the advent of Donald Trump to the White House. While he is certainly a far cry from all his predecessors, I don’t think it is necessarily because Trump’s policies — whatever they may be under all the feverish froth — are anathema to all right-thinking citizens, but rather because of his blatant refusal to accept any truth but his own overcooked version of it.
In short, people seem to be saying that there is little point in getting an ulcer or having a brain spasm from hours of impotent teeth-gritting, eye-bulging histrionics in front of impersonal media outlets when the biggest pooh-bah in the world can tweet pugnaciously that black is white, wet is dry, night is day and strychnine is good for your health. End of story.
It will come as no surprise, then, that a news blackout has now engulfed our own household, as we ration our television viewing to what really grabs us, meandering past the minefields of the 6:30 to 8pm time slots, filling the available time with our CD collection, which had languished on our shelves for the past five years, and visits to the local municipal library to borrow an item from its superb DVD collection. Last night, Grace and I watched They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, Sydney Pollack’s 1969 masterpiece which informed us, better than any current affairs wind-bag, as to what it’s really like for battlers during hard times.
It may be irresponsible of me, but actually I don’t feel in any way disadvantaged by not knowing who the new federal cabinet comprises. Nor do I feel under-nourished by not having ingested the membership of the incoming Opposition shadow ministry. Nor has vulgarity claimed me by my not having a clue about what Kim Kardashian and Bruce/Caitlin Jenner’s next forays onto the world stage may be. Truly, ignorance can be bliss.