Why Rolling News is Making Us Sick…
And what we should do about it
Yesterday, I had a garden wall built in front of my house. My bricklayer, who is now a dear friend, had just put the coping stones on the piers when I took him out a cup of tea and said: ‘Sorry, but it needs to be higher.’
Poor Vic. He is 72. But, off came the coping stones and up went my wall two more courses.
I was excited about this wall as I’ve been waiting for it to be built for two years (I love building work). But it was only when I told my best friend what an exciting day I was having, that she highlighted to me what a metaphor that wall was.
Oh yeah… and I am meant to be the writer.
You see, I think we all need to build more brick walls, metaphorically, of course. Because, I’m really tired at the moment, sick and tired. Last year I had terrible back problems which caused me pain every day for nine months. This is not unusual as a writer — it’s our bad habit of sitting for hours at our laptops, usually on the sofa, or in bed. We do it to ourselves if we’re really honest. But usually, a few weeks of osteopathy and I’m back to normal. Not this time.
Now I have something else wrong with me. My stomach. I’m not sure what it is exactly, they need to have a look with an ultrasound and do some blood tests, but I have a pretty good idea: stress.
You see, the last two years have been exhausting for us all. We have rolled from one disaster to another, and I’m not even talking about our personal lives.
I spoke to my book editor this morning and she sounded shattered. She was saying how upsetting she’d found the invasion of Afghanistan, the plight of the people, now there is Ukraine to worry about, an impending world war. She said she had cried for weeks. We are all watching events unfold completely helpless at the moment. As if we hadn’t had enough doom with COVID which, as an aside, have you noticed did not worsen as a virus when we all stopped worrying about it?
When I worked as an executive at the Daily Mail in my early thirties, the editor, Paul Dacre’s rule was that we needed to make people cry, laugh, angry or scared. It sells newspapers. But the problem is these days that newspapers are not selling, newspapers are dying. When I started out at my local evening newspaper as a 19-year-old cub reporter we had fourteen journalists, now it’s gone down to a weekly circulation, it’s filled with adverts. I doubt there are more than a handful of editorial staff. The internet, the rolling news, has taken the place of newspapers, and so news has become more competitive as a result. They need to scare us more. They need to make us more angry. They need to make us cry.
The internet has meant the world has got smaller, and we need to care more, and if we don’t care that must mean we’re selfish. Our empathy is now being used against us.
But we’re not meant to live like this.
At the moment I’m working with a duchess on her autobiography. She is from a tiny valley on the Welsh borders and she was telling me the other day about how all the families there when she was growing up had lives that had been intertwined for generations. They knew who the guy was who beat his wife, so matches were avoided with the off-spring of that family because his father and his father before him had done that too. They knew the ones with gambling in the bloodline, so marriages were avoided there too unless you wanted to risk ending up penniless. Now we have Tinder and Hinge and Bumble and no-one knows where anyone comes from or what their background is.
For millennia we lived in small communities, we did not need to know what was going on outside of them, and I am sure that people were happier and less stressed as a result. The impending doom was only felt when absolutely necessary, otherwise people got on with their lives happily because, if something was happening in a village ten miles away that wouldn’t affect them, then … who cares?
Now, I’m not suggesting for one minute that we don’t care about what is happening out in the world, but as someone who has been addicted to news my whole life as a result of my almost 30-year career in newspapers, I’m telling you that this obsession is completely unhealthy. We are making ourselves sick and tired. Our brains are not built to ingest this much doom, or indeed information. Centuries ago the only images we would have seen on a daily basis were stained glass windows, or pictures in the bible. We see more now in one scroll of Instagram than we would in a year back then.
There is no-one who loves stories more than me, I have spent my career giving others a voice to tell theirs, but there is a time when stories are bad, when they are over-whelming.
At the beginning of Covid, I was terrified as many people were of this invisible danger. I cooked in batches, freezing enough to feed three at a time, I disinfected my post, when a book of mine that had been translated arrived from China, I quarantined it for a month. I felt like I was standing at the front of my cave watching the horizon for incoming danger. I was glued to the news reports, the academic studies, the government’s surveillance. And I believe it made me ill. I think my back pain was because of the worry of it. Like I believe my stomach pains are because of all the stress now.
For those nine months my back was bad, I spent so much money on physiotherapy, one-to-one pilates, reiki, acupuncture, more osteopathy, massage, and it was only when I was having a massage, complaining about how awful my suffering was, that my therapist said: 'It’s interesting that you haven’t yet invested in a proper office chair…’
She left that hanging there. For me to claim responsibility for it.
Oh yeah. I went home and spent £400 on a new chair. (At least I could expense it.)
Guess what? My back improved. Why had it taken me so long to take responsibility for myself?
In the last few days I have realised, all this bad energy, this poison I am ingesting, it’s only going to go away if I don’t drink it.
And so I come back to the wall at the front of my house. I was almost tempted to have crenellations added to the top of it. But do you see what I’m getting at? I need to learn to protect myself and build my own defences.
I remember a therapist saying to me years ago when my marriage ended: ‘Just because people feed you dog food, doesn’t mean you have to eat it.’
I’ve never forgotten that.
So if you’re feeling stressed and tired and overwhelmed by current affairs at the moment, try not refreshing your timeline on Twitter, try avoiding the news, or at least be disciplined and check the news once, twice a day. Take responsibility for yourself, protect yourself. Go back to your own ‘Welsh valley’ and focus on the people within your own wingspan – your friends, your family, your pets, the things you love that give you joy. It really isn’t all doom and gloom.
And if in doubt, build a wall. I know the number of a great brickie.