Orwell on Press Freedom

George Orwell and a pig

Some of my favourite Toronto haunts are the BMV bookstores peppered throughout the city. They offer a wide range of books at pretty good prices. I can barely keep myself from one if I am in the vicinity. Today, what with the sun and blue skies, my family and I took a walk downtown, and lo and behold, BMV! So in I went with kids in buggy while my wife hit up the nearby Panera Bread for a bagel. My first stop in any bookstore is the “O” in the fiction section, I’m a habitual purchaser of George Orwell’s books. Today I happily picked up—as an Easter present “from” my wife—the illustrated version of Animal Farm. The creepy pictures (see above) were done by Ralph Steadman.

One of my other favourite Toronto places is Terminal Barber Shop—the place to go to get a man’s haircut. So in I went, sans family, to get a trim. As I sat in the plush, manly leather chair, I took a gander at the Orwell volume to find reprinted at the back of it Orwell’s proposed preface titled, “The Freedom of the Press.” As I read, I was (again) struck by the relevance his words have today; not only since the Leveson Report in Britain, but also the general furor over various cultural events in North America, and the potential recriminations. I’ll let you fill in your own pet cultural horror-show; I know mine.

Here’s a taste of what caught my eye:

Any fairminded person with journalistic experience will admit that during this war [Note: Orwell speaks of WWII] official censorship has not been particularly irksome. We have not been subjected to the kind of totalitarian ‘co-ordination’ that it might have been reasonable to expect. The press has some justified grievances, but on the whole the Government has behaved well and has been surprisingly tolerant of minority opinions. The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban. Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news — things which on their own merits would get the big headlines-being kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact. So far as the daily newspapers go, this is easy to understand. 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. But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals, as well as in plays, films and radio. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.

And:

I am well acquainted with all the arguments against freedom of thought and speech — the arguments which claim that it cannot exist, and the arguments which claim that it ought not to. I answer simply that they don’t convince me and that our civilisation over a period of four hundred years has been founded on the opposite notice.

For the whole thing, see here.