Was George Orwell a fan of the News of the World?
- 11 July 2011
- From the section Magazine
In its final issue, the News of the World made much of a 1946 George Orwell essay in which the great writer had namechecked it. But was the Animal Farm author really an admirer of the paper?
History was always going to play a major part in the News of the World's final issue. With few big stories, past glories were to the fore, including the paper's first ever front page from 1 October 1843.
On page three, the paper opted for a farewell editorial. It began with a quote from George Orwell - used as a character witness for the paper - repeating the opening of his famous essay Decline of the English Murder.
"It is Sunday afternoon, preferably before the war. The wife is already asleep in the armchair, and the children have been sent out for a nice long walk. You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose and open the News of the World."
The News of the World editorial said of Orwell's words: "They were written in 1946 but they have been the sentiments of most of the nation for well over a century and a half as this astonishing paper became part of the fabric of Britain, as central to Sunday as a roast dinner."
But was that what Orwell was really saying? The blogger and communications expert Max Atkinson says they have linked the great writer to some dubious claims. "Are they part of the fabric of Britain? No! As central to Sunday as roast dinner? No! This is self aggrandising, megalomaniac, boastful and untrue stuff."
Orwell was interested in the lives of the working class. But while the essay depicts the quintessential lazy Sunday, it also satirises the prurience that newspapers - the News of the World is the only one mentioned by name - encourage.
"In these blissful circumstances, what is it that you want to read about?" the essay reads. "Naturally, about a murder." Orwell goes on to relate how these murders are "re-hashed over and over again by the Sunday papers".
Atkinson remembers the paper even in the late 1950s as being too racy for him to be allowed to read at boarding school. "In those days they'd send stringers around to the local Crown Courts to report on the local sex cases. They were constantly talking about people having carnal knowledge with under-age girls."
For him, Orwell's essay is far from complimentary to the News of the World. "It doesn't sound to me as though the quote they used was Orwell doing a top reader recommends. They're misrepresenting Orwell to suggest he's a fan of the paper."
Orwell bibliographer Peter Davison says that in Decline of the English Murder he neither approves nor disapproves of the paper. "He's describing a scene in ordinary households about what's happening on a Sunday afternoon. He had a very good idea of how ordinary people lived."
He has no problem with the News of the World's use of the essay - "they picked up a good quote and used it". But Orwell was often critical of the press. He worried about the power of right-wing press barons then and it is unlikely he would have approved of a Rupert Murdoch now, he says.
"I don't think he would have approved of a newspaper baron who lived abroad and changed his nationality to advance his business interests."
Nick Cohen, author of What's Left, says Orwell loved the "vulgar working class culture" that went hand-in-hand with the News of the World.
In today's terms the 1946 News of the World fitted into the notion of English decency that the Decline of the English Murder was about, Cohen argues. "It was very genteel, it wouldn't run a story like today's paper would have done. It was raucous but also very well written."
Orwell saw the paper as part of decent working class life. For that reason the News of the World are entitled to trumpet his essay about the paper's past, Cohen says. But that was 1946.
"How can you tell what a writer who died in 1950 would say about 2011?" he asks.
Cohen guesses that if Orwell were alive today, he would have been "depressed" by what he read.