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Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

George Orwell, The Secret State and the Making of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’- understanding ‘a literary journalist.’

George Orwell has become a touchstone for most contemporary journalists writing features connected with anything that could be described as Orwellian.

A Google search of the adjective yields 2,540,000 results.

The online encyclopaedia Wikipedia explains the word ‘describes a situation, idea, or societal condition that George Orwell identified as being destructive to the welfare of a free and open society.’

A search of the word in the Guardian’s website brings up every kind of headline: Nothing but the truth: the legacy of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four’ (2019); “Do you really know what ‘Orwellian’ means?” (2014); ‘The masterpiece that killed George Orwell’ (2009); ‘George Orwell’s dystopia is with us today’ (2019); “Nineteen Eighty-Phwoar: the truth about George Orwell’s romantic ‘arrangements’” (2020) and ‘What would George Orwell have made of the world in 2013?’ (2013).

For one of the most read, taught and discussed 20th century English speaking writers, is there a slim, clearly written book that can help navigate the life, times, writings and after-life of George Orwell- real-name Eric Arthur Blair? (1903-1950)

Richard Lance Keeble’s ‘George Orwell, The Secret State And The Making of Nineteen Eighty Four‘ published by Abramis in 2020 may well be the answer.

Original front cover of 1949 publication of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four. Image: George Orwell Estate and UCL Archive.

Professor Keeble has been one of the key pioneers of journalism education in British universities.

Having been a professional journalist turned academic himself, around 1999 he began to focus on researching and writing about the journalist in George Orwell.

Indeed, the 175 page volume discusses the Orwell phenomenon across three themes: ‘New Perspectives on Nineteen Eighty Four‘; ‘Orwell’s Afterlife: Beyond 1950’, and at the very core of this book is the middle section titled: ‘Orwell and the Journalistic Imagination.’

Keeble mixes articles with reviews and the quest keeps coming back to the central question of what kind of journalist was the famous creator of Animal Farm?

The debate gathers up all the prejudices about ‘hacks’ and ‘authors’ and exposes the rather sad disinclination for novelists to be described or even legitimised as journalists.

Journalists are hacks and belong in Grub Street.

Orwell himself was rather touched with idea he was a superior kind of writer- though he had no objection to joining the National Union of Journalists and proudly bearing its membership card.

Virginia Woolf represented journalism as ‘a bug, repellent and blood-sucking’ in her poem ‘Fantasy.’ Keeble observed that ‘George Orwell even looked down on his journalism as ‘mere pamphleteering.’

It seems the news media in Britain have been blighted with an association with scandal and low culture since the onset of journalistic writing in the early seventeenth century.

During the 1720s, Grub Street became characterised as ‘an impoverished area of London where poor writers lived’, just as the word ‘hack’ came to be associated with writers and prostitutes and as Richard Keeble rather playfully suggests ‘basically anything overused, hired out or common.’

The origination of the Institute of Journalists towards the end of the 19th century and being chartered by Queen Victoria have been part of the struggle to reverse and counter the demonization and inferiority.

To be recognised as a profession rather than a disreputable trade.

Keeble certainly makes out a strong case for Orwell’s status as ‘The Literary Journalist.’ He also gives recognition to his stint as the film reviewer of Time and Tide between 1940 and 1941 and argues that he came up with original insights, ‘and displayed an awareness of its possibilities as both an art form and propaganda tool- and its potential for remaking the way we understand the world.’

Keeble also includes a transcription of a remarkable and significant interview with Observer editor and proprietor David Astor who hired Orwell to cover the later stages of World War II and liberation of Europe.

Astor said: ‘This reporting was not particularly exciting because he went under a misapprehension. He hoped to pick up the atmosphere of a dictatorship but by the time he arrived in Germany it had largely disappeared.’

Astor never thought Orwell was in any way ‘a hack’. He emphasised ‘I don’t think of him as a journalist. The best things he did for journalism were book reviews. He was a political writer, a literary critic, but not a journalist. The Road To Wigan Pier, for instance, is a form of reportage that goes much deeper than news.’

What is curious here is that David Astor is striking up a class system in the journalism industry where he is elevating the political writer and literary critic above that of the shoe-leather wearing reporter. Certainly photo-journalists do not have a look in here in the bounds of respectability.

Chapter 15 explores ‘Orwell and Leveson.’ It is a most amusing speculation. Would the author of the most infamous dystopian novel in modern literary history that conjured the myths of Big Brother, memory holes and Newspeak have been for Hacked Off or Murdoch?

George Orwell by Vernon Richards. Image George Orwell Estate and UCL Archive.

Keeble quite rightly concedes that ‘there is a danger of projecting our own biases and obsessions on to Orwell.’

He has been appropriated and weaponised by all points of the political spectrum as their literary poster-boy.

Keeble says Orwell was consistently unorthodox and ‘had little time at all for the mainstream, corporate press’ even though his friendship and work for David Astor’s Observer was an exception.

He wrote mainly for left-wing periodicals and at the same time ‘never failed to criticise the left press (particularly over its reporting of the Spanish civil war and Soviet communism).’

George Orwell, talest and standing in the middle with moustache with his first wife Eileen O’Shaughnessy seated to his left during Spanish Civil War. Image: George Orwell Estate and UCL Archive.

Keeble references Orwell’s originally banned preface to Animal Farm which was intriguingly given the title ‘Freedom of the Press.’

There were two telling remarks. The first asserted that ‘Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban.’

And what he added in the late 1940s was as true then as it is now ‘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.’

Keeble’s short essay had been prompted by the Telegraph writer Toby Young claiming at the time that in the Leveson debate Orwell would have been for the working-class tabloids and made clear his ‘dislike of high-mindedness, piety, sanctimony, snobbery – all vices of the Left-wing intelligentsia.’

Keeble concludes, however, that had he been alive for the phone hacking scandal and Leveson Inquiry ‘Orwell may well have enjoyed mocking Toby Young, Hacked off and the whole Leveson circus.’

George Orwell, The Secret State And The Making of Nineteen Eighty-Four by Richard Lance Keeble is published by Abramis and the paperback is priced at £14.95.