Professor Richard Lance Keeble, Acting Head of the Lincoln School of Journalism, argues that George Orwell is best seen as a protoblogger
The current celebration of Orwell Week has certainly got Fleet Street’s pundits pondering how he may have responded to today’s social, cultural and political controversies. While there may be a danger of merely projecting our own obsessions and biases on to the Great Man, I’m going to enter into the spirit and stick my neck out on a few, perhaps surprising, points.
First it’s clear to me Orwell would have been at home in the blogosphere. Indeed, he might even be considered a protoblogger. Take a look at those 80 wonderful ‘As I Please’ columns he contributed to Tribune between 1943 and 1947 and see the amazingly close relationship he instinctively established with his readers. So often he responds to letters sent to him directly or addressed to Tribune. At other times he is running a short story competition or giving his readers a quirky brain teaser to answer. Elsewhere he invites letters, asks readers to answer queries or even point him towards a book, pamphlet or quotation he is looking for.
Not only did Orwell respond to letters but, as Peter Davison’s Collected Works show, his columns often provoked correspondence, both critical and supportive, from readers. For instance, following his criticisms of newspapers carrying pictures of French Nazi collaborators on 8 September 1944, a reader wrote: ‘How much longer must your readers be affronted by the quite patently pro-Fascist, neo-Jesuit posturing of George Orwell. He writes in the wrong periodical.’
Orwell’s close relationship to his readers was crucial to the flowering of what many consider the greatest journalism of the last century. While he realised mainstream journalism was basically propaganda for wealthy newspaper proprietors, at Tribune he was engaging in the vital political debate with people he often criticised – but who mattered to him.
Secondly, Orwell, who was always keen to stress journalists’ responsibility to preserve high standards of English, would have found much to criticise in Fleet Street’s churnalism of today. In Politics and the English Language (April 1946), he called for an end to ‘dying metaphors’, ‘pretentious diction’, ‘meaningless words’ and the jargon of political writing. He wrote: ‘In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible… Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.’ He urged us all to ‘jeer loudly’ whenever we heard or read some ‘worn-out and useless phrase’.
Today, along with the militarisation of our politics and culture goes the militarisation of our language. How Orwell would have mocked Fleet Street for trotting out so often the dull, all too predictable, unimaginative, worn-out metaphors of warfare, fighting and battle. Looking at just a small crop of mainstream newspapers there are countless examples – across all the sectors, tabloid, mid-market and ‘up-market’ and in all areas: sport, politics, business, arts reviewing, travel writing.
As I write today (25 January 2013), The Times has a headline ‘General Paterson wants YOU to fight the Great Ash War’ over a parliamentary sketch by Ann Treneman about the ash dieback disease. A feature by Ian Sample in the Guardian is headlined: ‘On the frontline against antibiotic resistance’. On 18 January, the Guardian carried the heading: ‘Store wars: Winners and losers in battle for festive sales’.
On 19 August last year, the Observer carried a story: ‘New generation of eco-activists takes war to Europe’s seas’. A report in the s next day’s Guardian Media section, a story headlined ‘A decisive blow in copyright wars’ reported: ‘In the ongoing “content wars” between those who run sites that offer links to all sorts of content, and the people who don’t always wants those links to exist, Vickerman’s conviction marks the conclusion of a remarkable battle.’ Vickerman is later described as ‘the latest victim in the content wars’.
Virtually any noun can be accompanied by the ‘battle’, ‘war”, ‘attack’ or ‘fighting’ metaphor in the journalistic lexicon. For instance, to take a few examples: in the Daily Mail there was the headline: ‘Family at war over Subo’s millions’. The Observer colour supplement the following day had a main headline ‘Mummy wars’ while inside the copy ran: ‘The war at home. Motherhood is the new battleground….A self-confessed “slack mother” reports from the frontline.’ The Sunday Express headlined: ‘Carpet wars as MPs camp out’ over a story about MPs changing offices in parliament. And so on and so on…This is not clever punning; it’s just lazy journalism.
Orwell was always optimistic in his language campaigning. In Politics and the English Language he argued that ‘the decadence of our language is probably curable’ and he highlighted the way in which a few ‘silly words and expressions’ had been discarded from the language through ‘the conscious action of a minority’. So is it not important now to follow Orwell’s example and jeer every time we see a crass, militaristic metaphor – and work as journalists and consumers of the media in every possible way to eliminate them from our language?
Finally, I wonder if Orwell would continue to hold his damning views about journalism education today. In two ‘As I Please’ columns (on 6 October 1944 and 17 November 1944), he actually follows up a letter from a reader and exposes what he sees as the shortcomings of ‘schools of journalism and the whole business of extracting fees from struggling freelance journalists’. He comments: ‘If these people really know how to make money out of writing why aren’t they just doing instead of peddling their secret at 5s a time?’
And he concludes: ‘Isn’t it rather curious that the “Fleet Street journalist”, “established authors” and “well-known novelists” who either run these courses or write the testimonials for them are not named – or, when named, are seldom or never people whose published work you have seen anywhere. If Bernard Shaw or J. B. Priestley offered to teach you how to make money out of writing, you might feel there was something in it. But who would buy a bottle of hair-restorer from a bald man?’
Perhaps we can end, then, with one certainty: Orwell would have had little time for me as a journalist academic!
• Richard Lance Keeble is the editor of Orwell Today, a collection of ground-breaking essays, recently published by Abramis, of Bury St Edmunds.