April 23. The media is full of advice on how to survive the lockdown, which for my household is now projected to last the whole of this calendar year. The advice is generally of two kinds: those things that you might normally do but should do more, like take exercise or keep in touch with your family; and those things that you might normally do but should do less, particularly consume alcohol.
By and large we are following these injunctions. My one besetting sin, which is doing serious damage to my peace of mind to say nothing of the time available for more useful projects, is reading newspapers. Before the crisis, we bought hard copy print whenever we were out shopping. We live too far from a newsagent to get a daily delivery. These papers were the prime cause of untidiness in the house. In every room, on every coffee table, were copies not yet finished and not sufficiently out of date to be dispatched to the waste. Even when the news was stale, there were crosswords and sudokus to complete. We have a log burner which needs lighting most evenings and for this purpose the large pink sheets of the Financial Times were invaluable. The shrunken tabloid pages of the Guardian and Times not so much.
These days every surface is clear of print, except dog-eared pages of the London Review of Books which arrives by post. Instead I am reading online. I always checked the free Guardian site when we had not bought a copy. Now I subscribe to the Times to get an alternative point of view. Also the New York Times to look at the world from outside the UK. And thanks to the OU virtual library, I can read the Financial Times each morning [an illuminating story yesterday about the plight of second-home owners in the crisis]. There is the potential to consume hours a day wandering about these electronic journals. And whereas hard copy papers have a back page as well as a front, the links in the stories mean that I can endlessly travel to yet further corners of the internet universe.
I can try to persuade myself that by this means I am collecting material for what one day might be a history of this crisis. But in truth it would probably be simpler, and much more restful, if I just turned off the media and tuned in again when it is all over, to find out what happened.
The one defence of this virtual habit is that the press is having a golden period, despite the loss of advertising revenue. Almost all the detailed analysis of the epidemic, and most of the stories exposing the shortcomings of the government, are starting life in the papers, which in turn are being fed material by informed academics, exasperated health workers, insubordinate public officials, and outraged members of the public. This is true not just of long-term dissenting journals such as the Guardian but of papers which traditionally support the Conservative Party. In recent weeks nothing has done more damage to the reputation of Johnson’s Government that the lethal 5,000 word ‘Thirty-Eight Days’ article written by the Sunday Times insight team last week. Even the Daily Telegraph, which slavishly followed Johnson’s line throughout the Brexit crisis, is running front-page stories critical of various shortages. The BBC is doing its best, but is constrained by the need to take a balanced view of the Administration. Little critical information, so far, has emanated from opposition politicians, although this may change now that Labour has a new leader and Parliament has reconvened. Yesterday’s Prime Minister’s Questions with Keir Starmer was a promising start.
What is so seductive, and so dangerous, about keeping abreast of events in this way is that every time I open my laptop and call up a paper, the news has changed. There is no fixed point, no moment when I can be assured that I am abreast of the day’s developments. Is there a newspaper equivalent of alcoholics anonymous? If not, it may need inventing.