George Orwell's example for Australian journalists


George Orwell - Essays (front cover)As Australia undergoes a multilayered debate about the quality of its journalism, it is worth remembering that the best political writing not only analyses, but outlives the events it describes. George Orwell's work exemplifies this. Although he achieved acclaim for his novels 1984 and Animal Farm, he was also a brilliant essayist. He worked briefly for the BBC between 1941 and 1943 and is today honoured in the Orwell Prize for political writing.

Recently, BBC director general Mark Thompson turned down a proposal by the George Orwell Memorial Trust to erect a statue of the author on the broadcaster's premises. According to Labour peer Dame Joan Bakewell, the refusal was made on the grounds that Orwell 'would be perceived as too left-wing a figure for the BBC to honour'. The Trust awaits planning permission to erect a statue in the nearby Portland Place.

These events have renewed debate in Britain as to whether Orwell was indeed 'left-wing' or ought to be regarded as conservative. Political animals of all stripes have long sought to claim Orwell, along with his penetrating insights, luminous prose, and subtle wit.

Those towards the right of the spectrum value Orwell's clear-sighted critiques of communism and his contempt for 'orthodoxy sniffers' willing to diminish or deny the horrors of Stalinist Russia in the interests of ideological purity. Orwell was also dismissive of the 'cranks' he encountered in leftist circles and wrote disparagingly of 'left-wing intellectuals who are so 'enlightened' that they cannot understand the most ordinary emotions'.

It is not difficult to see why conservatives wish to claim Orwell as one of their own, but such an endeavour faces obvious problems. One cannot have Orwell's acerbic observation that in the Soviet Union 'all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others' without his equally astringent statement that 'whether the British ruling class are wicked or merely stupid is one of the most difficult questions of our time'.

Although critical of self-styled progressives and revolutionaries and aware of the dangers of utopian projects, Orwell set himself against both his country's rigidly class-bound nature and capitalism's manifold injustices. He noted in his 1946 essay 'Why I Write' that 'every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written ... against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it'.

The intellectual tug-of-war over Orwell's legacy is destined to continue, for he was too complex, independently minded and allergic to orthodoxy to fit neatly into any ideological category. He wrote in 1940 that 'any writer who accepts or partially accepts the discipline of a political party is sooner or later faced with the alternative: toe the line, or shut up': he did neither.

Journalist Geoffrey Wheatcroft argues that Orwell remains as relevant as ever, for with each re-reading 'there is a flash of illumination, of acute contemporary value'. The man who famously claimed that 'good prose is like a windowpane' lives on in his words: looking through them we see the large themes, not only of his era, but of our own, with a major thread being the need for clear, critical thinking about one's allies and opposition alike.

It has been suggested that the infamous 'Ministry of Truth' in 1984 was partly modelled on the BBC, and Wheatcroft thus concluded that in turning down the proposal to erect a statue of Orwell on the broadcaster's premises, 'Thompson might be right, if for the wrong reason'.

We might wonder how a statue could embody Orwell's legacy, anyway. Orwell's sympathies were instinctively with the little people rather than with those, such as monarchs and generals, commonly immortalised in granite and marble; he sided not with the makers of history but with its victims. In 1941 he wrote:

I never read the proclamations of generals before battle, the speeches of Fuehrers and prime ministers, the solidarity songs of public schools and left-wing political parties, national anthems, Temperance tracts, Papal encyclicals and sermons against gambling and contraception, without seeming to hear in the background a chorus of raspberries from all the millions of common men to whom these high sentiments make no appeal.

Statues appeal to the high sentiments that Orwell mocked even as he acknowledged their importance, and generally represent those who have been assimilated into the establishment.

One can perhaps imagine Orwell looking on in quiet approval should the odd passer-by choose to blow his or her own raspberry at a statue of a long-dead writer in a rumpled suit. 

Sarah BurnsideSarah Burnside is a freelance writer with experience in law and policy. She is completing an MSc in economic and social history at the University of Oxford. 


Topic tags: Sarah Burnside, George Orwell, communism, capitalism, Animal Farm, 1984


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Existing comments

If the BBC was the inspiration for the Ministry of Truth, one has to wonder about NewsCorp and commercial TV/radio of today, not to mention the dampened down Fairfax newspaper of late. Statues are like flags though, or at least can be as misused as flags, to drum up ra-ra feelings and disguise 'the truth' (whatever that means). It's good there is no statue, of Eric Blair or anyone else, outside the BBC buildings but not because he was 'too leftwing' or too rightwing for that matter. If any statue/s should go there, it should be of the humdrum listener/viewer, in a sort of 'unknown soldier' style, although we'd then have a debate as to whether it should be male or female, young or old, in a grey suit or a hijab, in a wheelchair or standing on two full legs, and so on. Those who know where Eric Blair is buried, and the manner in which he had himself buried, would know very well that Eric Blair would not want or support anything so gross as a statue of himself, particularly outside the BBC, and doubly so if it were of a cypher called 'George Orwell'. Best left well alone.
janice wallace | 20 September 2012

I wonder how Orwell would have regarded the climate change debate that is not allowed to happen.
Kevin Prendergast | 20 September 2012

I think George Orwell would have sympathised with Hilaire Belloc when he (Belloc) wrote: "When I am dead, I hope it may be said 'His sins were scarlet, but his books were red.'" "too left-wing a figure for the BBC to honour" Did the BBC director really say that? If he did then he needs to read (if DGs or CEOs of large corporations read books anymore)"Why I Write", referred to by Sarah Burnside. On the blurb of my Penguin edition (2004) it is written: Whether puncturing the lies of politicians, wittily dissecting the English character, or telling the unpalatable truths about war, Orwell's timeless, uncompromising essays are more relevant, entertaining and essential than ever in today's era of spin. To transpose the Latin poet Horace's boast: Orwell has completed a monument more lasting than bronze and more lofty than the royal memorial of the pyramids. What need has such a vibrant writer of a piece of cold statuary?
Uncle Pat | 20 September 2012

Orwell presciently denounced totalitarianism of any stripe - undoubtedly including religious totalitarianism also. The above quote which has him saying any writer who accepts the discipline of a political party will ultimately have to "toe the line or shut up" can easily be applied to any religious doctrinal discipline too.
Michelle Goldsmith | 20 September 2012

I thought that the BBC was always into the "without fear or favour" category. Who's Mark Thompson afraid of? Personally, I'm not into statues but I thought that it was the same England that gave birth to Das Kapital? All the same, it's good to know that the legacy of George (nee Eric) is still alive and well in the hearts of (at least) some of ES readers!
Alex Njoo | 20 September 2012

Orwell was a man of enormous perception and integrity, who always put personal experience before theory, something which held him in good stead throughout his life. A champion of the underdog, he fought in the Spanish Civil War where he saw thousands of his comrades murdered by his communist allies. However upon his return to England he found it difficult to get these terrible events published, because neither Victor Gollancz of the Left Book Club, nor Kingsley Martin of the New Statesman, the publishers of “progressive” opinion, would publish his accounts. During WW2, Orwell worked for the BBC devising anti-Nazi propaganda. Indeed the BBC was instrumental in the destruction of the German warship “Admiral Graf Spee” by giving out false reports. Yet by the second Iraq War, British sailors aboard the “Ark Royal” turned off BBC news because they found it indistinguishable from enemy propaganda. How disingenuous then for a head of the BBC to suggest that Orwell was “too Left-wing” when that national broadcaster has become so debased and ideologically Left-wing, much like our own ABC. Orwell would clearly see through the pretentiousness and hypocrisy of today’s supporters of Left-wing government broadcasting wanting to muzzle the independent press.
Ross Howard | 20 September 2012

The articles I read In Eureka Street are... so provocative, so interesting, so different, so thoughtful. so genuinely informative. To discover an article like this when I stumble through my In-Box so early this morning ....what a way to start my day!
Eileen | 21 September 2012

Orwell could only be called left-wing by comparison with the conservatism of an Edmund Burke. Democratic socialism is what we putatively have and there's precious little that's radical about it. One of Orwell's most strident critics was Raymond Williams, who was also a (marxist-cum) democratic socialist, in that he advocated sitting on hands while the "long revolution" unfurled.

I think a statue of Orwell highly appropriate outside the BBC, perhaps it would remind the denizens within what they're supposed to be about.
The fact that Orwell's not wanted points up the kind of neoliberal ethos that now holds sway.
Marcus Holmes | 21 September 2012

Unfortunately, Michelle (20.9.12) , there some criteria of ethics and morality that cannot be punctured or watered-down without also destroying civilisations. Ethics and morality (the most comprehensive of which are only provided by Catholicism) are like a Life-Saver’s inflatable Rescue Boat: once punctured it becomes a deadly trap for all the occupants. Need more proof? Then look no further than the culture of “religious indifference” that had so widely pervaded even a cultured country such as Germany prior to Hitler’s rise to power. For further proof, then look at Russia prior to the rise of Stalin. (Hitler a fervent follower of atheist Friedrich Nietzche and Stalin openly atheist). Note how they both became cultures of death. This is exactly why we should be trembling in our boots at the present western culture of mindless excesses and self-indulgence in so many areas, for example: the indifference to morality and ethics seen in the ever-growing “greed-is-good” mentality; the ever-more-aggressive “intellectual vacuum” mendacity of Christo-phobia, while at the very same time “indulging in inconsolable tears” and hand-wringing over Homo-phobia and their (false) claims for “equal rights“ (which, by the way, apart from the title of Marriage, “gays” ALREADY HAVE all the same rights of married couples in superannuation, inheritance, etc. etc.) Only someone living in a vacuum will have failed to notice the millions of abortions; the demands for assisted suicide; the escalation in popularity of suicide; drug ‘turf-wars”; murder and extreme violence becoming an everyday headline; etc. etc.- serious sins all sugar-coated with the usual euphemisms. It is increasingly evident that western culture has not heeded the lessons of history and is condemning itself to repeating the same old mistakes. An exceedingly selfish culture - where sin has been “normalised” - it is already well on the way to becoming yet another “culture of death”. .../2
observer of history | 24 September 2012

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