Serving professional journalism since 1912

Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

Great Journalists/novelists- George Orwell and Nineteen Eighty Four

George Orwell, whose real name was Eric Arthur Blair, is generally famous for being the author of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four.

Both novels are undoubtedly among the most famous works of English fiction with a political edge to have been published in the last one hundred years.

Orwell’s next claim to fame is as an essayist.

‘A Hanging’ and ‘Shooting an Elephant’ are iconic.

There remains something of a debate about whether those articles or essays were journalism, or fiction.

The young Eric Arthur Blair at Eton in the Wall Game team, back row and far left. Image: George Orwell Archives, University College London.

Did he actually go along and watch an execution in Burma when he was working there as an Imperial policeman?

And in the same role did he shoot the elephant, who did not need shooting?

His biographers are divided about whether the first person accounts were the product of imagination, transposing himself into the witnessing of others, or verifiable and reliable documentary journalism.

What is less well-known is that Eric Arthur Blair aka George Orwell was a very hard-working journalist.

He spent most of his life writing features and reviews and worked as a literary editor for Tribune.

It could be argued that the two years he had at the BBC during the Second World War were in the journalist editorial role of a producer and in that position he certainly wrote and presented news commentaries.

George Orwell’s statue at the BBC entrance, cigarette in hand and the quotation: ‘If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’ Image: Tim Crook

The year 2019 represents 70 years since the publication of his Dystopian satire Nineteen Eighty Four.

A symposium at Goldsmiths, University of London May 9th 2019 marks the significance of this event.  

“Hope Lies in the Proles: George Orwell and the Left’ by Professor John Newsinger, published by Pluto Press 2018.

George Orwell’s son Richard Blair reflects on ‘Living with 70 years of my father’s vision of Nineteen Eighty-Four.’

The writer and director Jonathan Holloway talks about dramatising the novel for radio and theatre.

Orwell’s biographer D.J. Taylor discusses ‘A Five-Year Stretch: Nineteen Eighty-Four’s long gestation.’

There is a review of Professor John Newsinger’s new book ‘Hope Lies in the Proles’ focusing on ‘Nineteen Eighty Four: The View from the Left,’ and Professor Richard Keeble analyses ‘Orwell, Epistemology and the Julia Conundrum.’

The day is rounded off with a ‘Folk Ballad’- Peter Cordwell’s One Georgie Orwell performed by Tom Powell and Creative Vortex.

I shall be exploring Orwell’s relations with H.G. Wells and the links between Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Rights of Man.’

The symposium is sponsored and jointly organised by the Orwell Society which seeks to promote and advance education and understanding of Orwell’s life and writings.

Orwell was very self effacing and self-deprecatory about what turned out to be his last major work of fiction, and which has sold many millions of copies.

A Google search of the novel brings up 7,730,000 results.

He was also rather anxious that he ‘had ballsed it up.’

He was sensitive perhaps to his own insecurities as a writer, a profession he had struggled to be successful in.

To what extent is Nineteen Eighty Four a journalistic novel?

What can be said is that in addition to the massive amount of journalism he wrote, there is a considerable amount of the journalistic addressed and present in his fiction.

Throughout the Nineteen Eighty Four text he is constantly confronting and satirising the anxieties and concerns of his time.

This includes the horrors of totalitarianism in the wake of the rise and fall of the Nazi terror and genocidal regime in Germany, and the enduring hegemony of Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union.

First edition of Nineteen Eighty Four by George Orwell published in June 1949. Image: George Orwell Archives University College London.

He fully challenges the misuse, corruption and perversion of language through journalism, propaganda and media communication.

This influential and seminal novel was a continuation and culmination of what all his writing had done whether poetry, essay, review or novelistic prose.

As a political and journalistic author he was continually exploring and addressing the acute political, social and cultural issues of news and current affairs.

Eric Arthur Blair now established as the writer George Orwell. Image: Vernon Richards in the George Orwell Archive at University College, London,

It can be argued that he did so with such power and impact in 1949 that its resonance and relevance have continued beyond the year of the novel’s title to the present day.

His very first publication as a child ‘Awake!, Young Men of England’ on 2nd October 1914 was a patriotic poem that confronted emotionally the cause of Great Britain’s involvement in the First World War.

The journalistic resonance is fully memorialised by the fact it was published in a weekly newspaper The Henley and South Oxfordshire Standard, which at the time of writing is still in publication with an online presence.

It was the style for all kinds of newspapers at that time for the front page to be covered in classified advertising.

The Christmas edition for 1912 had a prominent notice for children:

‘Nothing pleases the young ones so much, as good pure home-made Sweets. Once tried, you will never be without them. For a Children’s Christmas treat they cannot be beaten- J. Bond, Manufacturer, 88, London Street, and Covered Market (Saturdays), Reading.’

The front cover of the Henley and South Oxfordshire Standard, Christmas 1912. Image: British Library.

Eric Arthur Blair was only eleven years old in 1914 and nine in 1912. Although he may have been sucking sweets, there is no doubt he had already begun to chew over the troubles of the world.

He was an avid reader of H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, two highly political writers.

It is both charming and prescient that in the first stanza the young Orwell exhorted: ‘Oh! Give me the strength of the lion, The Wisdom of Reynard the fox.’

These are certainly two qualities needed for anyone wishing to embark on a life of journalism and writing.

Biographical assessments of his journalism

Orwell’s first biographer Bernard Crick said that his first piece of journalism was a feature called ‘A Farthing Newspaper’ in G.K.’s Weekly published at the end of December 1928.

The first biography of George Orwell by Bernard Crick.

It was ‘an ironic account of a French Right-wing attempt to produce a nearly-free newspaper’ that was ‘crisply and colloquially written.’

Crick said his early journalism was much ‘closer to his mature style than were his early novels.’ He wrote a few more articles in French for the small radical journal Le Progrès civique which seemed to have quickly shut down when short of funds and circulation.

Orwell’s other biographers, Michael Shelden, D.J Taylor, Gordon Bowker and Jeffrey Meyers, all acknowledge the importance of journalism in his writing life.

Before Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four writing for newspapers and periodicals such as Adelphi, Horizon, The Observer, The Manchester Evening News, Partisan Review, Time and Tide and Tribune all put food on his table and complemented his fictional and documentary authorship of books for Gollancz, and Secker and Warburg.

The highly acclaimed biography of Orwell by D.J Taylor.

It was when he was literary editor at the left wing Tribune that he produced the scores of articles for his ‘As I Please’ column between December 1943 and April 1947.

His social observations have become maxims of the English language.

His comment that ‘if you climb to the top of the hill in Greenwich Park, you can have the mild thrill of standing exactly on Longitude 0°, and you can also examine the ugliest building in the world’ is certainly not proudly displayed anywhere in the Greenwich Observatory.

Looking through photographs in the New Year’s Honours List, Orwell noticed ‘the quite exceptional ugliness and vulgarity of the faces displayed there.’

He wrote that extreme nationalists such as Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin ‘tend not to belong to the nation that they idealise.’

Jeffrey Meyers said that Orwell was perhaps too kind to be a successfully ruthless editor: ‘When he took over as literary editor at the Tribune, he found his desk drawers “stuffed with letters and manuscripts which ought to have been dealt with weeks earlier, and hurriedly shut it up again.”‘

Meyers added: ‘He had a fatal tendency to accept manuscripts which he knew very well could never be printed, but didn’t have the heart to send back.’

Orwell’s life and work breathes the culture and essence of journalism and attracts experts and artists who are also profoundly journalistic.

This is true of the fourth Goldsmiths’ Symposium for George Orwell Studies.

Peter Cordwell, the deviser and lyricist of the ballad musical  One Georgie Orwell in association with the Greenwich Theatre, has been a local journalist for 54 years apart from two summers (1975/76) playing football for VPS (Vaasan Palloseura) in the Finnish premier division.

He was sports editor at the South East London Mercury during its support for Charlton Athletic fans’ seven-year campaign to return to The Valley.

He later edited the Mercury and then Greenwich Time, the so-called “town hall Pravda”.

The Labour council sacked him for a letter he wrote as an individual to the News Shopper, praising the community campaign to save Lewisham Hospital’s A&E department.

Professor Richard Keeble is one of the country’s most prominent and respected journalism educators in the university field having begun his working life as a regional newspaper journalist and editor.

In addition to being Chair of the Orwell Society and joint editor of the George Orwell Studies Journal, he has examined in detail Orwell’s only time working as a traditional reporter and having to meet strict and regular deadlines for mainstream newspapers such as The Observer and Manchester Evening News.

The Spring 2019 issue of the George Orwell Studies Journal focuses on ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four and Me’

The commission to cover the state of Europe just after the Second World War was the initiative of Orwell’s friend David Astor then editor of the Observer.

14 articles of around 1,000 words each were filed to the Observer and 5 to the MEN.

But Jeffrey Meyers shares a consensus among Orwell’s biographers that Orwell’s newspaper reporting seemed ‘curiously flat, lifeless and impersonal.’

Richard Keeble is kinder in his conclusions after close analysis of the output of Orwell’s work as a foreign/war correspondent in Germany and France.

He thinks Orwell came back with more than the .32 Colt revolver lent to him by Ernest Hemingway in Paris.

Professor Keeble credits Orwell with writing that has ‘vitality and power’ as well as being ‘uncertain and troubled.’

George Orwell reporting on state of French newspaper industry for Manchester Evening News when working as a foreign/war correspondent in February 1945. Image: British Library.

Whereas Orwell had been comfortable with political and cultural opinion in comment columns and reviewing, he had difficulty moving from the subjective to the objective tradition. 

Richard Keeble said he kept shifting between different positions: newcomer; eye witness and overhearer of other people’s conversations.

He was more confident in the first person writing as an essayist and consequently would be tempted into reporting on reporting, analysing newspaper coverage, propaganda and language.

Orwell’s fiction in Nineteen Eighty Four and his essay writing have lasted as major journalistic talking points of the present day.

Professor Keeble cites the dimension of Orwell’s satire on newspapers in Nineteen Eight Four as an explanation. The central character Winston Smith is represented: ‘significantly as a media worker on the newspaper of record (in effect, The Times) and changing back issues to conform to the current orthodoxy.’

Professor Keeble will be discussing Orwell’s journalism at the forthcoming two day conference ‘Rebel? Prophet? Relic? Perspectives on George Orwell’ at University College London 24th and 25th May.

He recalls a section in Homage to Catalonia where he meets ‘the fat Russian agent’ in the hotel during the May Day’s fighting and writes: ‘I watched him with some interest for it was the first time I had seen a person whose profession was telling lies – unless one counts journalists.’

The Observer columnist Nick Cohen quoted Orwell as the fulcrum of his column in the Observer May 5th 2019 ‘Remember Orwell’s chilling warning to boot-licking propagandists…’

Cohen was advancing the view that ‘Arguments on the left are less to do with ideology, more with the lure of the gang.’

He finished his piece with an Orwellian flourish and quotation from the Tribune column ‘As I Please’ 1st September 1944:

a message to English leftwing journalists and intellectuals generally: ‘Do remember that dishonesty and cowardice always have to be paid for. Don’t imagine that for years on end you can make yourself the boot-licking propagandist of the Soviet regime, or any other regime, and then suddenly return to mental decency. Once a whore, always a whore.’