Monday, 10 October 2005

Orwell and the secret state: close encounters of a strange kind?

George Orwell, journalist, political commentator, activist and novelist, has always fascinated me. However, his decision in 1949 (just months before he died) to submit a list of 35 names of alleged Communist fellow travellers to the newly formed, top secret propaganda unit, the Information Research Department, has provoked mixed responses from the Left. For many it represents his ultimate betrayal of the cause.

Virtually all commentators assume this was Orwell’s only flirtation with the secret state. On 18 July 2005 the Guardian reported on a newly-released special branch file which suggested Orwell had been subject to surveillance – at least from 1936 (when he travelled north to research The Road to Wigan Pier) until 1942 (when he was working at the BBC). Big Brother clearly took a close watch on Orwell over this period. But, more intriguingly, could Orwell’s own links with the secret state have grown more substantial in later years?

Take, for instance, his reporting assignment on the Continent for the Observer and Manchester Evening News at the end of the Second World War in 1945. The assignment (from 15 February to the end of May) was interrupted briefly when Orwell became so ill he had to enter hospital in Cologne on 24 March. Then he suddenly had to quit the hospital to return to England following the death of his wife, Eileen, on 29 March. By 8 April he was back in Paris, moving on then to Nuremberg, Stuttgart and Austria. These were, indeed, traumatic times for Orwell which makes his completion of the assignment all the more remarkable. In all he despatched 14 articles (each roughly 1,000 words long) to the Observer (though the final two, of 27 May and 10 June, were composed on his return to London) and five to the MEN.

Could Orwell have been on an intelligence mission? He is certainly known to have met in Paris two men working for British intelligence at the time. One of them was Malcolm Muggeridge who introduced him to P.G.Wodehouse. Muggeridge had been assigned to keep a watch on Wodehouse who was suspected of having Nazi sympathies following his broadcast in the summer of 1941 from Berlin for the American CBS network. Orwell had written an article in defence of Wodehouse in February just before leaving for France (though it was not published until July 1945 in the Windmill magazine) and may simply have wanted to express his admiration to the creator of Jeeves and Bertie Wooster. Orwell also met the philosopher (and old Etonian) A.J.Ayer, in Paris for the Secret Intelligence Service (M16) who were particularly concerned over the danger of a Communist coup. Ayer’s biographer Ben Rogers records that the two found they shared a devotion to the works of Kipling and Dickens and immediately became friends.

Orwell also saw Ernest Hemingway whom he had previously met in Barcelona during the Spanish civil war. The American novelist, who was serving as a war correspondent and staying at the Paris Ritz, had close links with members of the Office of Strategic Services (the forerunner of the CIA) and his son, Jack, was a member of the OSS. Carlos Baker's account of the meeting in his 1969 biography of Hemingway, based on a letter he wrote to the critic Harvey Breit on 16 April 1952, only adds to the mystery: "Orwell looked nervous and worried. He said that he feared that the Communists were out to kill him and asked Hemingway for the loan of a pistol. Ernest lent him the .32 Colt that Paul Willerts had given him in June. Orwell departed like a pale ghost."

Orwell's possible links with the intelligence service (MI5) were explored in detail by W.J. West in his 1992 text The Larger Evils: Nineteen Eighty Four – the Truth behind the Satire. He reports a "retired CIA officer in Washington" asserting that Orwell worked for MI5 and suggests that he could have developed contacts with Maxwell Knight, head of MI5's Department B5(b) counter-subversion unit and a former pupil of Orwell's prep school, St Cyprian's, in Eastbourne. Yet Anthony Masters makes no reference to Orwell in his 1984 biography of Knight.

The editor of the Observer, and Orwell’s great friend, David Astor, was also deeply immersed in the intelligence world. He served with the Special Operations Executive during the war and thereafter maintained close links with intelligence. Stephen Dorril, in his seminal history of MI6, published in 2000, reports that in 1944 Astor was transferred to a unit liaising between SOE and the resistance in France, helping the French underground in London spread the word to groups throughout Europe. While on the reporting assignment in Paris, perhaps inspired by Astor, Orwell attended the first conference of the Committee for European Federation bringing together resistance groups from around Europe.

Does this point to Orwell’s deeper links with the secret state? I would be interested to hear your views. My analysis of Orwell’s war reporting from a critical journalistic perspective appears in Journalism Studies Vol 2 No 3 pp 393-406.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005, 02:14

Why we have to remove all these meaningless militaristic metaphors

George Orwell was always keen to stress journalists’ responsibility to preserve high standards of English. In a series of celebrated essays he explored the links between politics and language and he constantly used his “As I please” column (a sort of proto-blog) in Tribune to harangue the perpetrators of bad grammar. In Politics and the English Language (which appeared in Horizon of 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. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification.” He called for 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. Time after time, Fleet Street trots out the dull, all too predictable, unimaginative metaphors of warfare, fighting and battle. And each time we see them we should jeer! Looking at just a recent 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.

Obscenely, the metaphor of “carpet-bombing” (which, in reality, brings such horrific, indiscriminate horrors to so many innocent people) appears everywhere. For instance, in the Independent of 25 July 2005 John Walsh, reporting on a new $100m TV epic in ancient Rome writes: “ …it will invade your living room for 12 weeks in the autumn, carpet bombing British audiences with togas, triumvirates and troilism, backstabbing and betrayal, slavery and sexual excess, in a visual assault rarely seen since , well, since the last episode of I Claudius in 1976.”

Then, in the Independent of 10 August 2005, Michael Harrison reports in the business section on Britain moving away from its “carpet bombing approach” to regulation in areas such as health, health and safety and employment protection. On 14 June 2005 Dominic Mills, in the Daily Telegraph, describes the media strategy behind Crazy Frog “the equivalent of carpet bombing”. In the Sunday Times of 29 May 2005 Kate Butler describes the Bud Rising Festival as “carpet bombing” Dublin’s venues with gigs over seven days. And in his obituary of the Indian film maker Ismail Merchant, Hugh Davies in the Daily Telegraph of 26 May 2005 describes him as “carpet bombing” journalists with invitations to parties. In a profile of the Penguin paperback, celebrating its 70th birthday, John Sutherland, in the Times of 7 May2005 describes the publishing company “carpet bombing” the market with quality goods.

In a review of The Importance of Being Earnest, Robert Gore Langton, in the Independent of 17 May 2005, describes it as a “visual assault on the chuckle muscles”. On 22 May 2005, Tony Glover in the Business, describes Nintendo’s new revolution console as its “secret weapon”. And of Bill Gates Xbox, he says it is “a Trojan horse to invade living rooms and lay siege to the residential telecoms market”.

Similarly newspaper “circulation wars” are everywhere. The Guardian’s Media Monkey Diary of 22 August 2005 speaks of a circulation war of attrition between The Times and the Telegraph entering a new black ops phase. And in the Sun of 13 January 2005, Dr Keith Hopkirk, in talking about blood circulation amongst “blokes” speaks of the “circulation war”.

A headline in the Guardian of 22 September 2005 runs: “Clubs ready for war after RFU votes to withhold tour payments.” And Paul Rees reports: “English rugby was placed on a civil war footing last night. What’s wrong with English rugby was in crisis last night…” In the same issue, Jonathan Watts’ report from Beijing on a campaign against designer drugs is headlined “War declared on designer drugs as Chinese middle class gets high”. On the Guardian’s Financial pages, in a profile of the chief executive of J Sainsbury, the headline runs: “Sainsbury’s chief opens up a new front in the stores war – land”. The headline accompanying the “Notebook” section on the same page is “Europe’s battle of the champions”.

In the Independent of 22 September, Chris Hewett reports that rugby’s management board signalled their readiness to “fight to the finish with the Guinness Premiership clubs” while the headline screamed “RFU declares war on top clubs over player releases”. The Guardian G2 section of 23 September profiles Tom Hunter and carries a standfirst reporting Bill Clinton’s “war on poverty”. The media business section has a headline “Sony fights losses with 10,000 job cuts” while a subhead goes “Electronic arts: A battle on four fronts”. Significantly Sir Howard Stringer, Sony’s chief executive, is quoted as saying: “We must be Sony United and fight like the Sony warriors we are.”

A headline in the Daily Mail of 23 September runs: “Legal aid for travellers in battles with planners” while in the Guardian of 24 September the controversy over a new Nelson Mandela statue in Trafalgar Square is headlined: “Sculptors at war over statue” with a strapline “Gloves off at inquiry into Mandela figure as old rivals clash”.

The 29 September Guardian story about the Education Secretary’s campaign against junk food at schools is headlined: “Kelly’s junk-food war” while a feature in the Femail section on women at work is headlined “Are career women at war?” On October 4, the Guardian’s art critic Charlotte Higgins suggests that “a new exhibition at Tate Britain shows English artists putting up a decent fight against their counterparts in Paris”. On the Guardian2 cover of 6 October 2005 a feature comparing the cultural offerings of the two capitals is headlined: “London v Paris, the art war” And so on and so on. In all of these cases, a non-militaristic metaphor is possible. Only a lack of imagination and a dull conformity to journalistic conventions prevents reporters from searching out the alternatives.

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 jeer every time we see a crass, militaristic metaphor -- and work in every possible way to eliminate them from the language? Who’s going to join me?

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