Belfast Telegraph

How we may end up with too much information, Ofcom reveals


By John Simpson

Big brother is watching us all. The official evidence available from the Communications Marketing Report from Ofcom reveals that we spend a lot of time watching the small (and sometimes not so small) screen and listening to the radio.

The 'spies' watching our habits know that in Northern Ireland we watch live TV for an average of three hours and 36 minutes each day. We also listen, on average, to nearly three hours of radio each day.

With an average of over six hours viewing or listening, that must be the biggest single chosen activity for most people, excluding work and sleeping. That opens the temptation to debate the merits of that choice. However, aside from taking the usual attitude that we spend too much time watching TV or listening to radio, these figures do underline the continuing influence of the broadcasting media.

Then add the time taken to keep up with the written word of newspapers and current affairs magazines and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that today's generation are subject to (and willing to accept) an impossibly large information flow. The availability of an almost infinite flow of information creates other problems.

First, how well trained and disciplined are the information users in selecting a choice of sources? The short answer is that choice in using communications sources is often far from scientific or purposeful. In turn, that choice contains a very complex mixture of deciding what I need to know, deciding what I am generally interested in and subconsciously learning what advertisers want me to learn.

In the words of a prominent American political figure, the flow of information can contain large amounts of 'fake news', but what is fake and what is genuine takes us into the realm of a mixture of personal judgments.

Living in Northern Ireland brings its own series of local dimensions to coping with information overload. Media providers try to be comprehensive and accurate. But, what is comprehensive and accurate to one person can be biased in the ears and eyes of others. As a regular viewer and user of BBC, ITV, RTE and France 24 (English language) the understanding of 'the facts' day by day, points to the influence of editorial decisions, some of them not even consistent between programmes from one source.

Standing back, this diversity opens the way to ask whether the width and range of information and entertainment is, in some forms, dangerous. Multi-channel TV opens the way to political rhetoric which can be seen as treasonable or seriously objectionable. In this corner of western Europe, there is an acceptance of very controversial broadcasting material usually emanating from non-domestic sources. We like to consider that in the UK and Ireland we have a liberal tolerant diversity of communications material where we rely on viewers to use their own discretion. Long may that remain!

The risks from portrayal of violence, treasonable ideas and unwelcome pornography become part of a spectrum of communications where we rely on the not too rigorous mentoring of various standard setting bodies.

Into the range of communications channels, increased interaction with the internet must be added. Some 98% of homes have access to TV, slightly more than the UK average of 94%. Radio is available in 89% of homes, compared to a UK average of 90%. The changing scene lies in the extended use of the internet: 88% of UK homes have internet access. NI is slightly behind with 83% now connected.

Northern Ireland's communications channels are now multi-sourced and comparable with the overall UK investment. As to whether these modern devices being used to best effect, can we settle for 'not yet'?

Belfast Telegraph

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