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  • Writer's pictureFaisal Sheikh

Q3 2022: Apocalypse Always

News is bad for your health. I am deadly serious. Its main purpose seems to be to provoke fear and unease about the present and the future. We need to recognise that this is so; understand the effect it has on us; and work out what to do about it.

Take as an example the news that the UK’s GDP fell in the last quarter. It was widely expected for a variety of reasons, not least the impact of the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II.

Yet the contraction, 0.2%, was described in apocalyptic terms in the news. BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, for instance, announced the fall as “likely to herald the longest recession in history”.

Others adopted the same tone – even across the Pond. CNBC’s headline in the US was particularly evocative with its strong Running Man vibes.

Hold on a second. We’ve had one quarter of slightly negative growth – and somehow it’s ok to leap from that to economic catastrophe as the headline?! “Likely” to cause the longest recession?

To make things worse: I heard later in the same coverage that leading economists had been expecting a contraction of 0.5% - so the actual figure, 0.3% of GDP ahead of forecast, was, in fact, a significant outperformance.

Let’s get this straight, then:

  • the fall in GDP was entirely expected and therefore not “news”;

  • the scale of the fall, at 0.2%, certainly did not warrant melodrama;

  • if anything, the headlines should have been positive, since the performance of the economy so roundly exceeded expectations!

Yet on TV, radio, online and in print, we were sold nothing but calamity.

Anyway, I thought the sky had already fallen in after the disastrous “Mini Budget” on 23rd September. (Does anyone else immediately picture Mini Me in Austin Powers over this fiasco?!)

Things got ridiculous: for ten days we got accounts of every tenth of a cent move in the value of the pound. Reporters salivated over soundbites of eternal doom for our worthless currency. That lasted until it became apparent that sterling was firmly back above the level it was at before 23rd September – and we quietly lost interest in it.

I could pick a dozen other examples. Catastrophe sells, we all know that. Everyone slows down on the motorway to gawp at a car crash. “So what?” you might be asking. It’s harmless – at worst, it’s just entertainment, right?

I don’t accept that. This really matters. It makes a difference in the real world.

We have fairly recently come to accept that there’s no difference between mental health and physical health. I think our relationship to news is analogous. The way in which every story is filtered to find the most negative interpretation is like having terrible mental health and expecting our physical health to be unaffected (or vice versa). It grinds people down, left unchecked.

Despite worrying levels of inequality, we humans, taken collectively, have never had it so good, yet listen in to conversations in affluent coffee shops and restaurants and you’ll hear how things have never been so bad.

You have to make a conscious effort to recognise how insidious and relentless this miserable diet is, and then figure out ways to filter it out of your system.

Personally, roughly every few months, I take a ‘news fast’: I only read or listen to sports news and I give up politics, business, economics and world news. Amazingly, I hardly ever feel uninformed – somehow the most pressing issues of the day find their way into my consciousness.

But I am spared what I call “Apocalypse Always”, this need for ever-escalating crisis which, by the way, clearly fulfils some basic human need – otherwise why would media providers keep supplying it, and why would we keep consuming it?

And that break (usually days, sometimes weeks) gives me a chance to reset, to let the sludge drain away, for the mental waters to run free again. Send me a WhatsApp if there’s a nuclear strike, please; but otherwise, perhaps I’ll catch up with the papers over Christmas.

- FS November '22


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