Chomsky, Orwell and the Myth of Press Freedom

The US maverick intellectual Noam Chomsky cites Orwell’s views on thought control in free societies in his latest YouTube video.

Richard Lance Keeble reports

Noam Chomsky is an extraordinary man. Voted the world’s leading public intellectual in a 2005 poll, the 76-year-old Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has authored more than 100 books. Whenever he travels the world giving talks and supporting progressive movements the halls are packed out.

A linguist specialist and anarcho-syndicalist activist, he rose to prominence in 1967 with his outspoken opposition to the American war on Vietnam. In Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, a book he co-wrote with his friend Edward S. Herman in 1988, he proposed the ‘propaganda model’ to highlight the ways in which corporate media in the West serve essentially to promote the interests of dominant financial, social, political and military interests. For many decades the model has inspired countless progressive media activists and theorists globally. I personally used the model prominently for my own PhD (completed in 1996) which examined the US/UK mainstream press coverage of the 1991 US-led attacks on Iraq.

Significantly, in his latest hour-long YouTube offering, ‘On Power and Ideology’, in which he explores issues relating to the suppression of ideas and the myth of American exceptionalism, Chomsky begins by citing the Preface Orwell wrote on ‘The Freedom of the Press’ for Animal Farm, in 1945. Somewhat ironically, the Preface was not included in the original publication – for reasons unknown. In fact, it did not see the light of day until it was discovered amongst his papers by Ian Angus and handed to Orwell’s biographer Bernard Crick, who provided his own introduction when it appeared in the Times Literary Supplement in September 1972.

Chomsky says that Orwell, as the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four, is normally associated with the suppression of thought in dystopian, authoritarian societies. Lesser known, according to Chomsky, is Orwell’s stress on “thought-control” in supposedly free societies such as England. Here a subtle system of censorship operates which means that unpopular ideas are rarely heard. Going to Orwell’s precise words:

The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban. … The British press is extremely centralized, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics. But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals, as well as in plays, films and radio. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is “not done” to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was “not done” to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.

Orwell may have been writing on censorship in the 1940s and the suppression of anti-Stalin views – but his views are equally relevant to an understanding of the media today. As a recent report from the Media Reform Coalition stressed: “The ownership of national newspapers remains concentrated in just a few large companies: 70 per cent of the UK national market is controlled by just three companies (News UK, Daily Mail and General Trust, and Trinity Mirror), with Rupert Murdoch’s News UK fully holding a third of the entire market share.”

Despite the myth of freedom, at crucial moments the mainstream press stands united. To take just a few examples: in 1991, during the Desert Storm attacks, all of Fleet Street backed the military response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait – as did 90 per cent of commentators. Today, no Fleet Street newspaper backs Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party. On television, it is impossible to imagine any newsreader or interviewee wearing the white, pacifist poppy around the time of Remembrance Day commemorations. For as Orwell wrote: “Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness.”

Orwell’s response to this “veiled censorship” was inspired. Following his experiences in the Spanish civil war, he wrote in “Why I Write” (of 1946): “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it” (italics in the original). In this way he engaged in crucial debates with the people who mattered to him: activists and intellectuals of the broad left. So most of Orwell’s journalism and essay writing was either poorly paid or done entirely free for small circulation, literary or left-wing publications such as Adelphi, New Statesman and Nation, New English Weekly, Fortnightly Review, The Highway, Time and Tide, Controversy, New Leader, Left Forum, New Writing, Horizon, Tribune, Left News, Polemic, Progressive, Focus, Persuasion, Contemporary Jewish Record, Politics and Letters, and Gangrel. In the United States, he chose not to contribute to the prestigious New York Times but to the left-wing Partisan Review and Politics.

Indeed, from Orwell’s engaged, activist stance came some of the greatest journalism of the last century.


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