Thursday, 7 December 2006

Newspeak, nukespeak and Fleet Street’s silencing of the real Trident debate

Richard Keeble explores the links between George Orwell’s concept of newspeak, Paul Chilton’s notion of nukespeak and Fleet Street’s current coverage of the Trident debate

The personal and the political
I’ve always been interested in silence. The first pamphlet I wrote was for the
Peace Pledge Union back in May 1983 and I called it A language of silence. I looked at the way in which our culture, individual thought processes and language were dominated by militarism. Militarism had become a core defining reality of our society. And our language, in preparing us for the possibility of the ultimate horror – the destruction of the globe in a nuclear confrontation – was moving in a process of self destruction towards silence. Or so I argued.

Significantly, I called my book on the coverage of the 1991 Gulf conflict in the US and UK press Secret State, Silent Press: New militarism, the Gulf and the Modern Image of Warfare. Why silent press? I liked the alliteration with secret state to be frank. But my essential thesis was that the mainstream press had silenced what in reality was a series of US-led massacres beneath the fiction of heroic warfare. US military chief Colin Powell, in his 1995 account of the conflict, estimated that 250,000 Iraqi soldiers had perished. The reality of that horrific explosion of hi-tech barbarism was silenced in the British and American press which represented the conflict as largely bloodless: a triumph of clean, precise, surgical weaponry. In the book I call the US/UK military media system – with its pools and self censoring journalists – along with the complex workings of ideology the apparatus of silence.

Newspeak and the destruction of language
Significantly, George Orwell was preoccupied with the potential shift of language towards silence. In his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell described a Big Brother state in which the authorities controlled thought and language by inventing a new one – newspeak. In the Appendix titled “The principles of newspeak” he wrote: “The purpose of newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc but to make all other modes of thought impossible.” In other words, the dominant language served above all to silence all dissident modes of thought. And newspeak was inherently moving towards silence. Syme, Winston Smith’s colleague, admonishes him like this: “You don’t grasp the beauty of the destruction of words. Do you know that newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year?”

Newspeak’s clone: nukespeak
During the Cold War, Paul Chilton coined the term nukespeak. The seminal text (of 1985) he edited was titled Language and the Nuclear Arms Debate: Nukespeak Today. He had earlier provided a chapter “Nukespeak: nuclear language and propaganda” to a text Nukespeak: The Media and the Bomb (edited by Crispin Aubrey 1982).

In coining the term nukespeak, Chilton was making three main claims. Firstly there existed a specialised vocabulary for talking about nuclear weapons together with habitual metaphors. Secondly that this variety of English was neither neutral nor purely descriptive but ideologically loaded in favour of the nuclear culture. And finally that nukespeak was massively important since it affected how people thought about the subject and largely determined the ideas they exchanged about it.

But there was no massive conspiracy to inject this vocabulary into the culture: there were no Orwellian grammarians munching their sandwiches at the Ministry of Truth and rewriting the English language. The atomic bombs which fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 were, indeed, weapons of mass destruction. Their deployment represented according to Chilton a revolutionary jump in military strategy. And inevitably it heralded a new order of experience in science, politics and the everyday. Chilton commented: “The language used to talk about the new weapons of mass extermination was partly an attempt to slot the new reality into the old paradigms of our culture. It was also no doubt a language that served the purpose of those who were concerned to perpetuate nuclear weapons development and deployment.”

Nukespeak then, as a specific linguistic register, drew on deep patterns of symbolic thought, on myths, religious beliefs, symbols, stereotypes and metaphors which we use to organise and normalise our everyday experiences. In August 1945 politicians together with the mainstream press spoke of the bomb mainly in terms of religious awe. For instance while Truman was meeting Churchill and Stalin at Potsdam an official report on the Hiroshima explosion was rushed to him. It said: “It was the beauty the great poets dream about….Then came the strong, sustained, awesome roar which warned of doomsday and made us feel that we puny things were blasphemous to dare to tamper with the forces heretofore reserved to the Almighty.” The Times reported eye-witnesses: “The whole thing was tremendous and awe-inspiring,” said a Captain Parsons of the US Navy.

The names given to these horrific bombs are also very telling. They are strangely humanised. They become familiar parts of our normal everyday lives. The Hiroshima bomb was called “Little Boy”, the plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki “Fat Man”. Edward Teller is known as the father of the H-Bomb.

Brian Easlea in his seminal, feminist history Fathering the Unthinkable (1983) highlights the creation of nuclear weapons in the context of the masculinity of science. He sees the development of science as a process of domination over both nature and women. According to Easlea, men create science and weapons to compensate for their lack of the “magical power” of mothering. In other words, the distorted psyche at the heart of masculinity and the “technical, phallic rationality” it promotes gives birth not to life but death. Easlea quotes a note slipped to Truman at the Potsdam conference on 17 July 1945 after a successful test of the plutonium bomb that said simply: “Babies successfully born”. And the President knew precisely what it meant.

The Trident debate and the language of silence
This context helps explain some of Fleet Street’s current coverage of the Blair government’s moves to replace the Trident nuclear missile system. The Cold War, pro-nuclear consensus in Fleet Street may have fractured but still the “humanising” language of nukespeak (with its emphasis on everyday domesticity and consumerism) persists – amongst both supporters and opponents of the bomb. For nukespeak has become such a “natural”, unproblematic feature of our “civilised” society.

Thus Mary Riddell, in the Observer of 3 December, while rightly calling for Britain to renounce the bomb, still slips effortlessly into the jargon of nukespeak. Upgrades of Trident are humanised and dubbed “the new generation”; US missiles are “souped up” while, on the global proliferation of nuclear weapons technology, she comments: “In this nuclear Wal-Mart, every aspiring dirty bomber can hope for crumbs.”

In the Observer of 3 December, former home secretary Charles Clarke is said to be raising doubts about the need to replace the country’s “ageing” weapons system. And in the Independent on 5 December, Blair is reported to be backing a submarine-based “son of Trident” system. Max Hastings, in a Daily Mail commentary on 5 December, backs the case for replacing Trident “when it reaches the end of its useful life”. In the Sun of 5 December, George Pascoe-Watson and Tom Newton Dunn manage to compare the obscene cost of Trident (“around £1 billion for 15 years”) with a child’s pocket money! They report: “Officials say that [the cost of Trident] is less than the £1.5 billion British kids get in pocket money a year.”

In the Guardian of 4 December, Labour Ministers are said to have “embraced the insurance policy” argument in favour of the “deterrent” since it is impossible to predict the shape of the threats over the next 20 years. And the religious “awe” expressed by the early commentators on the Hiroshima/Nagasaki explosions is echoed in the Guardian’s description on 4 December of Sir Michael Quinlan, former top official at the Ministry of Defence, as the “high priest of nuclear deterrence”.

Perhaps the most predictable aspect of Fleet Street’s coverage is the silencing or marginalising of the views of the massive, global peace movement. So often the debate is confined to the narrow parameters of party politics. In the face of the unthinkable horror of nuclear holocaust, the banal chatter of political banter emerges. Thus, in the Independent of 4 December, Ben Russell previews Blair’s White Paper on Trident “replacement” but quotes only Labour MPs (both pro and anti) and a Nottingham University professor, described as the “leading analyst of backbench rebellions” on Trident.

Ned Temko, in the Observer of 3 December, highlights the views of Blair, Labour opponents, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. No reference to the scores of peace groups campaigning against the bomb. Mention of the Campaign Against Nuclear Disarmament’s protest comes only in the last paragraph of the Guardian’s front page, lead story (“Blair opts to cut 20% of warheads”) of 4 December; on the same day, the Independent’s Ben Russell confines his reporting of the protests of anti-nuclear campaigners to a 13-word final paragraph. And on 5 December, the Independent’s Andrew Grice and Colin Brown devote just the last of their 14 paragraphs on Blair’s White Paper statement to the views of CND. Chair Kate Hudson is allowed a jibe (she was “very, very disappointed” with the PM) but no room to develop a coherent argument.

Significantly, the views of the “high priest” Sir Michael Quinlan appear in a vox pop in the Guardian: all ten “experts” are male; only three speak at all critically of the move to replace Trident. Representatives of the scores of peace groups in the country are clearly not considered “expert” enough to qualify for inclusion.

Coverage on Fleet Street is never one-dimensional; significant variations from the norm can appear. Thus, on 5 December, the Guardian highlighted the opposition of the various Christian churches to nuclear weapons. But, in general, the major function of the mainstream media – to silence (or marginalise) dissident views – can be seen to have operated in the recent Trident reporting.

• Richard Keeble is Professor of Journalism at the University of Lincoln

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