Orwell and the Internet: @gorwell101

George Orwell at the BBC in 1943 George Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair in 1903 and died of tuberculosis in 1950

Would George Orwell have been a blogger? For an author who enjoyed interacting with his readers, would tweeting have been a step too far?

Bookshelf featuring Orwell titles Orwell was a prolific writer and journalist

It's tempting to view Orwell from where we sit now in the 21st century, wondering what he might think of current political, social and cultural issues.

His novel Nineteen Eighty Four gave us Room 101, Newspeak, the Thought Police and, of course, Big Brother.

He himself has become a well-used adjective: Orwellian. Describing an attitude; controlling policies by propaganda, surveillance, misinformation, denial of truth and manipulation of the past.

There is no doubt that, for many of us, the internet makes access to information and services easier. But it can also be a source of Orwellian anxiety when we think about who has access to what we write, buy and who we communicate with.

Orwell the journalist

Professor Richard Lance Keeble, the acting Head of the Lincoln School of Journalism, argues that Orwell may well have been at home in the blogosphere.

Start Quote

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible”

End Quote George Orwell

Orwell contributed 80 columns to the Tribune newspaper between 1943 and 1947. These As I Please articles consisted of free-flowing thoughts on any subject of interest to Orwell. Professor Keeble says they displayed an "amazingly close relationship he instinctively established with his readers."

Orwell invited and responded to letters sent to him and the paper. His articles provoked both criticism and support. He asked readers to answer queries or point him towards a book, pamphlet or a quotation.

He also held short story competitions or brain teasers for his readers to answer. It could be said he managed this relationship with his readers very much like a modern day blogger.

Orwell's template for good writing

While he was literary editor of the weekly Tribune he wrote many essays. In Politics and the English Language (1945) he expressed concern about the decline of writing standards and presented a template for good writing.

Orwell's rules for good writing

  • Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  • Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  • Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  • Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Orwell argued that there was a self-perpetuating link between cause and effect when it came to writing and thinking.

He compared it to a man who takes a drink because he feels a failure, but then fails because he is drinking.

"…It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts."

As a committed democratic socialist he deplored the language being used in the politics of his day.

"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."

He urged us all to "jeer loudly" whenever we heard or read some "worn-out and useless phrase".

We know these phrases well: 'moving forward', 'fit for purpose', insert your favourite cliché here. They are met often met with jeering and much of it on the social media networks.

Relevance today

Orwell's thoughts on language were discussed on a recent edition of BBC Radio 4's Start the Week, with guests including the writer, journalist and former politician Chris Mullin, Philip Collins, a former speechwriter to the then Prime Minister Tony Blair and Tim Montgomerie, editor and founder of the Conservative Home website.

Chris Mullin says that as a Junior Minister he was handed a draft of a speech in which the phrase 'best value' was repeated 48 times without ever defining it.

Orwell was no stranger to a memorable quote or sound-bite himself. The difference being it would have been his creation, coming from what he had written. And it would have had more meaning than the 'pure wind' he warned against.

Philip Collins says that limited television coverage encourages overused sound-bites. The danger, he says, is that this becomes the starting point for speech writing. Finding the snappy message before you think of the substance of what you are attempting to say - exactly what Orwell warned against.

One of the conclusions reached in this radio discussion was that Orwell would have been horrified by television. He would have been frustrated by the time limitations for debate and delivery of well-written speeches.

Professor Keeble goes further. He says that in many ways Orwell predicted the ubiquity of the screen in contemporary society.

These can be seen in his depictions of Big Brother's propaganda techniques in Nineteen Eighty-Four. But these he says were heavy-handed with loudspeakers everywhere, wall to wall two-way TV, Pathé War films and constantly edited official statements on the progress of production.

Professor Keeble says that, in reality, modern electronic media are far more effective because of the inconspicuous way they promote notions of "accepted values, normality and the public interest".

Big Brother's ultimate dream

Big Brother poster from the 1965 BBC TV production Big Brother poster from the 1965 BBC TV production

On Start the Week, Tim Montgomerie argues that some aspects of social media would have suited Orwell. Online blogs leave enough space for speeches in full, with space for a range of views and responses as comments.

As for good writing and the shorthand of Twitter - he says a short 140 character message is not the end but can lead to "rich and thick" conversations, which can go on for a very long time.

Professor Keeble argues that Orwell may well have been ambivalent. He would welcome new genres to help him communicate with his readers and spread his views.

But he feels that, above all, Orwell would have been profoundly critical of all the new social media. They being, after all, he says "Big Brother's ultimate dream - offering the Surveillance State extraordinary powers to reach into our lives."

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