I know what he means. Both involve a bombardment of grotesquerie we're depressed by and inured to, but can't quite bring ourselves to turn off. Something springs out of it we respond to. Some call to casual righteousness or insufficient rage. Nonetheless, this won’t be much of a lunchtime argument if I agree with everything he says.
“The news isn’t like porn.Porn is positive, at least in the sense that something gets delivered, even if it's only a half-pint of throat yogurt. News, on the other hand, is always negative. You don’t see ‘em talking about countryside clean-ups or respectful teenagers or pillars of the community spending their tax dollars on methane globes and solar energy."
I liquefy a parmesan shaving on my tongue, creaming the inside of my throat with Sicilian sea salt in three brisk swallows while he continues surfing, his mouse arrow a swirl of motion-blurred arcs.
"That’s cause it’s not interesting,” he concedes. “Has to be death all the time. Death, rape and politics."
"The big three,” I say. “The holy trinity."
"Champagne corks popping off-camera if they squeeze all three in." We’re off on a lunchtime riff. Freestyling. They don’t always get as spicy as this.
"Throw in a celebrity for the motherlode. It makes those anchormen and women hot. The viagra of factual reporting. They can barely wait for the credits to finish. "
“That’s wish-fulfilment on your part.”
I prod a clutch of artichokes with a cheese straw, displacing oil. The modern newsdesk and its ungraspable woes. The constant reprisal of old crimes and disasters, as though their bones aren’t bleached enough, still harbouring shreds of meat under the settling dust. Especially those unresolved iniquities where the perpetrator somehow slipped the net. We have to make sense of things, of course. To understand how and why they happened and to prevent their recurrence. But of all crimes, the culpritless one requires most scrutiny. Larceny and outrage are powerful spurs. We need to know how exactly this showing of heels and shaken fists came about.
He filches a queen olive from under my nose. “The internet isn’t the place for news, anyway.”
“Unlike porn, which is what you’d be glued to if not for the office firewall.”
He ignores me diligently, snapping off a single tine from a plastic fork for a toothpick. “For one thing, it lacks viewpoint. We don’t know how to feel.”
He’s right, damn it. The news is a static, recreatable feast and must be relayed in a certain way and in the correct environment, preferably on a big living room TV, where a familiar face delivers senselessness in a fierce but restrained voice. Like when judges rein themselves in to read out verdicts they don’t necessarily agree with, or your aunt telling you about the death of a favourite dog. It isn’t just the spoken word, we want to be told how to react by an expression we’d feel comfortable wearing ourselves.
“As a species, we can’t abide loose ends,” I observe, inserting a sun-dried tomato into my upper lip and mashing it against my teeth. “That’s why the same stories pop up time and again.”
He grunts in what I choose to understand is agreement, rolling the toothpick around his teeth like a poker player. “And all this ‘new evidence’ leading to fresh government enquiries, preferably requiring hotel subsistence and airline travel. Do they emerge, weeks later, creaking with fresh dossiers of evidence?”
“After filming countless re-enactments with slim-hipped men and dog-faced women?”
“After indulging in an orgy of note-taking and forensic dusting?”
“No,” I conclude, unnecessarily. There is a middling silence while we tackle the obduracy of cooked ham, respecting the etiquette of the shared platter in this aspect at least.
“For every unsolved Edinburgh slaying,” Tim declares thoughtfully to a flaccid scrap of prosciutto. “It has somehow become necessary to dig up a car park in Doncaster on a ‘hunch’.”
“For every Ponzi scheme hatched in Skipton seven years ago,” I add, with a mascarpone smile, “a fact-finding committee has to leave urgently tonight for the remote kingdom of Burundi to tie up ‘factual inconsistencies’.”
“And everything’s already happened that was worth talking about. Now it’s about reconstructions of defeat, regurgitating failure for early detection. Nobody cares any more, not even the victims.”
“Especially not the victims,” Tim agrees. “They just want to forget it, probably.”
I think about them, squeezed from their orbit, no different now than their antagonists and inhabiting the same dowdy realm. Dead, escaped, incarcerated, lost, roaming abroad, reconstituted, rehabilitated or spiritually elevated beyond judicial help. On whose authority do the newshounds and headline writers seek to prolong these events in our consciousnesses? Who decides what Pentecostal misery and sibilant grief we ought to reimagine? Should we crave the remembrance, in vivid detail, of how dead children died, or catch yet another parting glimpse of the lost millions we'll never see a penny of?
“It’s over,” I say. “Crime, felon and victim alike, gone to their separate destinies, unaffected by new light, fresh judgement or revised opinion. Jack the Ripper, Madeleine McCann, the Great Train Robbery, Hillsborough. Let it go."
“Let it go,” echoes Tim, clicking through a raft of links via Fox, the BBC and CNN. “Find something good to say about litter-picking in Lowestoft for a change. Or a new species of deer in the Belgian Congo.”
I muse on this while sipping Irn Bru and leaning back in my chair. Everything in the news arises from the need to defer any kind of satisfaction with what unfolds in the moment. Everything that was already pure, arising of peculiar happenstance and crucially unknowable. It attempts to pin down our inexplicable miseries. If this one event hadn't taken place we would probably all be happy now, it suggests. If that thing were to happen again we’d be twice-betrayed, so we need to stay vigilant, not let the seductive present carry us to a grim and uncertain future. Despite this, I am playing devil’s advocate. It doesn’t do to let Tim think he’s right too often.
"You don't want to know what's going on in the world? How about chemical spills and forest fires?"
"They always happen in other countries, to other people. When did we last have a proper blaze or a tsunami? When was the last time you recognised a tattoo on the charred wrist sticking up from a crumpled sunroof, or a sooty-faced neighbour crying in their underwear at the roadside?”
I’d love to be able to take issue with this but can’t. “Never.”
“Exactly. Our News is crap, unless it’s about someone famous. Celebrity tax-dodgers, kiddy fiddlers, wife-beaters. Pier-end comedians, faking their own death. A trusted gameshow host snorting coke off the tits of an underage runaway. Now that’s worth a click.”
“What about factual stuff. Health and science and whatnot?”
“I don’t want to know that what I’ve been eating, drinking or rubbing into my balls for years suddenly causes cancer. Everything becomes bad for you that started on the upslope of healthy. Tune in to see what kills us today. Social media. Pickles. Foot lotion. No thanks.”
"Let me ask you this, then. How would you prefer to be entertained?"
"I’m glad you asked," he says, maximising another window. A video buffers and stutters, before successfully streaming footage, on the third refresh, of a dog driving a car. Brimming with confidence and undetectable energy, the Dalmation sends an SUV lurching up the road, while black men in white vests bump fists, venting a thorough and pixellated approval.
Tim snorts pesto onto the keyboard and scoops up the last bell pepper with a ragged wad of focaccia. “See now? That’s news!”