Where is the news?

There is a point in everyone's life, I believe, when you form the sentence "And everything was better when I was younger."

Well, obviously...

The older you get the more likely you are to be pestered by the NHS to provide bits of yourself for analysis and to submit to a yearly regime of prodding. You have to start spending more money as your children's requirements for small toys is replaced by rather more expensive electronics.

And talking of tech, your screen, whether a TV or a computer, seems to be suddenly filled with little icons offering a bewildering array of services you are not really sure you need and have no idea what they actually do. Many of these appear to be patently ridiculous - for example, when trying to shut down a Ps4 you are not only offered 4 different ways of doing so but are also given the option of 'other power options'. I am obviously out of touch, because I had for years foolishly believed that when I want to turn something off there was no mistaking my intention.

I was also mildly surprised to find a small icon on my computer offering me a 'mixed reality portal'. I wondered for a moment if by clicking it I would be transported to the House of Commons debating chamber or perhaps Narnia. However I decided not to on the basis that I am already in a world that offers reality on different planes of existence.

This brings me to the reason why at 7am on a stormy day in November 2020 I am writing this piece. Well, the premise is very simple, really. I want to explore with you what we call 'the news'.

This in itself shouldn't be hard: something happens and someone else writes it down and publishes it. It doesn't take a genius, just a person with a reasonable grasp of language and grammar.

But I would like to invite you to open up a page, any page, from any publication and to tell me what today's news actually is. Does it inform? Does it give you a comfortable grasp of an event or form part of a coherent set of events?

In short, do you feel you are now completely informed about the state of your world?

If your answer is "Eerm..." you are not alone.

Do not panic. Above all, do not keep scrolling down that apparently endless webpage where you will read captions with exotic delights as "Chiropracters in Nuffield amazed by new seaweed wrap" or "Use this brilliant banana skin hack to clear earwax" or the delightfully captioned oddities that almost always start with "Man buys house, digs up floor and finds..."

I can see the attraction of clicking these, but it is a fatal human flaw and one that means we are simply unable to leave something alone if it looks tantalisingly stupid.

The sad fact is not that people must be choosing to read these things but that there is an army of people willing to spend their time writing them.

But back to our search for the news. You could tell me that, actually, there is tons of news out there, that reporters are strenuously sifting out the fake stuff from the real, checking their facts before publishing a well-informed and rounded article, and this is undoubtedly true when our preoccupations extend to the things most important to people right now. And our appetite for broader news is also sated if it relates in any way to human health and well-being, an example being the recent outbreak of a Covid mutation at Danish mink farms (17 million mink were ordered to be killed as a result). Other news, though, is right under our noses, yet barely gets a mention in the 'popular' press.

Have you heard of Ractopamine? What about Aspartame? No, they are not YouTube influencers or celebrity 'somethingorothers' but are in fact man-made compounds. You may not immediately see the connection with a blog about the news and the reason for this is that they do not regularly pop up. This is in itself disturbing because there is every likelihood you have recently consumed Aspartame, which is otherwise marketed as an artificial sweetener. No big deal, you may think, artificial sweeteners have been sold for decades - and so they have. But you may not have noticed how often this substance is now added to a bewildering variety of foods you wouldn't believe actually warranted it. According to Diabetes UK, over 6,000 products contain it, with the list likely to grow longer as we shy away from nasty, sugary foods. The problem is that aspartame has been linked to many and various ailments including this list from Diabetes UK:

  • diabetes mellitus

  • convulsions

  • headaches

  • depression

  • psychiatric states

  • hyperthyroidism

  • hypertension

  • arthritis

Always with the possibility of contracting several, or even all, at once and thus enlivening your evenings. As if these were not enough, a 2015 Guardian article also noted that it had allegedly been linked to :

"...multiple sclerosis, lupus, brain tumours, blindness, seizures, mental health problems and birth defects..." Suzi Gage, Guardian.com

I mean, I don't want to worry you, really I don't, but isn't it about time we started looking for some deeper answers to these far-flung and brief news items? Unfortunately, they are probably not considered newsworthy enough, certainly not enough to overstep our current preoccupation with voting in the US - although in scientific circles there is a great deal of information on this and other subjects, should one care to look.

A 2008 study that resulted in the death of 460 laboratory animals (on the back of an additional study with additionally significant loss of animal life) concluded that Aspartame was carcinogenic. This means the scientists concluded that the compound can give you cancers of a variety of form and size, none of which are fun and some of which are fatal.

Not surprisingly, given the huge number of products that contain the stuff, a further report by a different committee was rushed out the same year and concluded that it didn't (one panel member didn't participate in the 'Discussion' portion of the report, citing a conflict of interest). They didn't actually try to repeat the experiments you understand, to the obvious relief of hundreds of very ill but sugar-free lab rats, but just pored over the figures from the scientists. The report is itself almost impossible to understand but the link to it is here: WileyOnlineLibrary.

A similarly impenetrable document around about the same time looked into the exciting possibilities that a drug called Ractopamine afforded. This is something that is fed with glorious abandon to farmed animals, especially in the US because it promotes lean meat, amongst other things important to the avid consumer. Already banned in the EU, other countries have expressed doubts about the nasty effects it can have on people. Even China banned it. Whist the report did not explicitly state that ractopamine needs to be banned, it did suggest (after trying it out on rats, dogs, mice and a few other species) that the safe limit of daily consumption was 'zero'. Despite this revelation, the US is aggressively marketing meat liberally sprinkled with the stuff, much to the chagrin of those markets currently being told to buy it: TaiwanNews.com.

That the news story called the drug 'Recto-pamine' may not be just due to a typo...

So what can we gain from these pieces of news that don't actually make it to the 'news'? One thing we can deduce is that being a laboratory rat is not life-affirming. The other is that until we actually start asking important and searching questions about the world that surrounds us we are all just lab-rats in a giant consumer cage.