Orwell and Leveson

Professor Richard Lance Keeble, Acting Head of the Lincoln School of Journalism and a member of the Orwell Society Committee, argues that most of the debate surrounding the Leveson Report into press standards has missed the Orwellian point

How would Orwell have responded to the current controversy over press standards and the recent Leveson Report? It’s hard to know really – and there is a danger of projecting our own biases and obsessions on to Orwell.

That said, much of the Leveson debate seems to me to be missing the essential Orwellian point. Toby Young’s recent blog in the Daily Telegraph was typical. He accused the Media Standards Trust, which administers the annual Orwell Prize, of supporting attacks on press freedom simply because they backed (along with the Hacked Off campaign) some kind of legal underpinning for the new regulatory system. And he claimed both organisations were ‘anti-tabloid’. He ended with this flourish:

Orwell’s dislike of high-mindedness, piety, sanctimony, snobbery – all the vices of the Left-wing intelligentsia – is a constant theme running through his work. Anyone familiar with his essays – in particular, his views on press freedom, the ‘boiled rabbits of the left’ and the common people of England – can be in no doubt that he would have summoned all his powers as a journalist to pour vitriol on the panjandrums behind the Hacked Off Campaign. For the Media Standards Trust to give out a journalism prize in his name, given its close association with this lobby group, is a disgrace to his memory. They should rename it the Beatrice Webb Prize or the H. G. Wells Prize and stop traducing the name of the finest journalist this country has ever produced.

Orwell, he claimed, was a maverick challenging the orthodoxies of the Left. Yet, hasn’t Young misunderstood Orwell’s dissident spirit. Orwell was, indeed, unorthodox in that he had little time at all for the mainstream, corporate press (his work for David Astor’s Observer was an exception). He devoted most of his time to left-wing journals such a Tribune, New English Weekly, Fortnightly Review, The Highway, Left News, Left Forum, Gangrel. Some of these lasted only a few issues and then died. He didn’t mind: he was deliberately engaging in crucial political debate with people who mattered to him.

Orwell never failed to criticise the left press (particularly over its reporting of the Spanish civil war and Soviet communism) and leftist intellectuals although he sympathised with them. But they were an authentic audience compared with what Stuart Allan has called ‘the implied readers or imagined community of readers’ of the mainstream press. And the left press is predictably completely ignored in the whole Leveson circus.

Most seriously the Leveson process has marginalised the importance of the economic structure of the press and its impact on standards. As Orwell wrote in his banned preface to Animal Farm:

Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban. Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news – things which on their own merits would get the big headlines-being kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact. So far as the daily newspapers go, this is easy to understand. The British press is extremely centralised, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics. 

The Leveson process is, then, best understood as largely spectacular theatre – too trapped within the system it is attempting to reform to have any lasting effect. It has provided the illusion of moral intent by the state and its propaganda institutions – the leading media corporations – when, in reality, the system is run on ruthless profit-oriented principles.

Thus, Leveson’s priorities and those of the mainstream media covering it have reflected dominant values and sourcing routines: celebrities, leading journalists, proprietors and politicians dominated proceedings while ‘ordinary’ people (such as the parents of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler) were allowed to play their harrowing bit-parts in the Great Leveson Theatre Show before being condemned to obscurity in the wings.

Revelations about the intimate, collusive links between politicians and Fleet Street were also all too predictable. Such ties have long been analysed and documented by countless academics. And while politicians may wring their hands in guilt over being too intimate with the press in the past, Leveson is hardly likely to change this since newspapers remain far too closely integrated into the dominant structures of political, economic, cultural and ideological power.

Moreover, newspapers’ ties to the intelligence services are as important as those to politicians –yet Leveson had little interest in investigating these. The Hutton Inquiry into the strange death of weapons inspector Dr David Kelly had the opportunity to examine in some detail the links between hacks and spooks – but missed it.

Indeed, how Orwell would have enjoyed mocking Toby Young, Hacked Off and the whole Leveson circus!!

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2 thoughts on “Orwell and Leveson

  1. Orwell’s list of 1949, finally published in 2003, contains 86 names given to the Information Research Department of the Foreign Office, fingering subversives. These names included writers, academics, scientists, actors, MPs and others. Orwell was assisted in this by Arthur Koestler. I have asked Richard Blair about this and he said that it was simply unexplainable. He treated it as an anomaly. That will not do. The fact is that Orwell wrote about Eric Arthur Blair and that the original writing was autobiographical. It displays, particularly in portraying George Bowler and Winston Smith, a character that is at root idealist yet ultimately flawed and compromised. What Orwell did with his list was to shop people, to recommend government monitoring of their behaviour. He did this purposely and without coercion. Orwell would be hard pressed to oppose those exposed by Leveson or by the Leveson witnesses. Orwell participated in State control of renegade thinking. Koestler committed suicide in his self-despair. Orwell went out in a whirlpool of self-loathing, in the last lines of Winston Smith. That’s the point about Orwell writing about the troubled Blair. It didn’t matter who he fingered, he just fingered anyone that might make his lot more easy. Orwell despised Blair for this. Orwell had Blair’s lot summed up in Nineteen Eighty Four. There’s no point in bleating about the bush. Orwell ended up like McCarthy. That is what makes his three best books fascinating – Coming Up For Air, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.. The ones that were not ideas just commissioned by Golancz. George Orwell gives us Eric Arthur Blair unvarnished therein. The apologists would have us treat the list as a parlour game. He was dealing with the Foreign Office. Some parlour. Some parlez. Ciao, Peter Burness-Smith. PS Why will this reply not be published? I know that the Orwell Society now exercises censorship on allof the exchanges, but how does that fit with Orwell’s open ethos?

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