Be empathetic like Orwell, but watch your language

02Apr08

George Orwell‘s work is a rich source for quotes, patricularly for left-leaning students, and more-particularly students of journalism. These words are excerpted from an intended preface written in 1945 for the novel Animal Farm: 

“If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion…Any fairminded person with journalistic experience will admit that during [World War Two] official censorship has not been particularly irksome…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…but because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact.

The novel, Animal Farm

“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…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…Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness.”

The parallels with today’s highly concentrated newspaper industry are obvious, where ownership is enjoyed by just a few companies, like the Guardian and Mirror groups, and Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB.

And the self-enforced journalistic standards of newsworthiness and proximity mean it is far more acceptable to write about, say, a brave local soldier than a dead Iraqi, even though stories about Iraqi deaths would create a far more representative picture of the invasion.

Culture of consensus

Somewhere in the journalistic ether, an agenda has been set by consensus and ignorance, where reporters have to confirm to strange and discomforting norms. People are not interested in people “over there”, an editor once told me, or worthy stories about injustice.

This racism and cultural-exclusivity was realised explicitly by Orwell in his 1939 essay Not Counting Niggers.

Also, the parallels with Orwell‘s “unpeople” in 1984 are manifest: it will not do to mention their dead in the same breath as our brave soldiers.

However, I tend to think that a greater interest in foreign affairs (and foreign injustices) could be created if newspapers reported more extensively and compassionately about those subjects.

Certainly, the Independent‘s Robert Fisk puts himself out there in far-flung war zones, and finds facts far removed from press release officialese.

But he is an exception to the rule. And even the “respectable” media are loathe to make the obvious connections between Anglo-American conquest and the proliferation of American and British oil companies in the Middle East.

This is because this connection is not absolutely verifiable, whereas officialspeak can be put down in copy without fear of reprisals. “Objective” and “accepted”, in this sense, become synonymous.

George Orwell, novelist

Immoral agenda

The ability of the tabloid press to set the moral agenda is startling. Readers frequently tolerate The Sun‘s ethical ambivalence, particularly towards sex: barely legal page three breasts and prurient attacks on sexual misadventures frequently go together in the same paper.

If readers tolerate this, they will surely tolerate the stilted news values of times of conflict.

Politics and the English Language

In his 1946 essay politics and the English Language, Orwell writes:

“Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration…”

This is intended to refer to academic writing, but could apply equally well to many today’s journalists.

Like Winston Smith in Orwell‘s novel 1984, reporters are often forced to adopt a received and faulty lexicon based on familiarity; importantly, “familiar” often means “official”, given the air-time and page-space allowed for government ministers.

Very often, an officially-uttered word or phrase like “Hearts and Minds” or “atrocity” or “War on Terror” phrase will appear in quotation marks in a headline, strapline or news crosshead.

Soon enough, particularly on the internet and rolling 24 hour television news, such words and phrases can become identifiable taglines or soundbites for a theme, and each media outlet is then compelled to compete for this identifiability. A Google search for “war on terror” produces a BBC news page as the second result.

Resultantly, the invasion of Iraq is not just reputed by George Bush to be a “War on Terror”, it becomes an actual war on terror by the lights of media saturation coverage. 

However, certain “left-liberal” newspapers like the Independent do refrain from using such phrases without quotataion marks, themselves being wary of the dangers of uncritically-used language.

Bollocks to Blairese

But there is an even more insidious process at work, and it has been growing in strength since 1997: the infiltration of Blairese. The language of Blair, of “pledges”, of “Regional Regeneration Strategies” of “Community Involvement Partnerships”, is baffling.

As a result of this language, and the labarynth of governmental, corporate and quasi-governmental bodies and their many interactions and legal paper-trails, a journalist’s notes on a local council story or house-planning scandal can seem like a mist of nonsense.

Given his low pay, long hours, and crammed schedule, he is likely to abandon this story altogether.

The cynical journalist might argue this system and its accompanying acronyms are deliberately opaque. No understandable information means no story and this means no problem for Councillor Smith.

Laziness is next to lousiness

But beware! Lazy news-values are easy, and some stories are easily reproducable, with names, dates and places changed for purpose. More worryingly, though, journalists often have lazy ethics.

Orwell was definitely not a complacent journalist in either sense: for his 1933 novel Down and Out in Paris and London he lived on the streets – he went to the other side, and learnt to empathise with the disenfranchised and disregarded.

Empathetic journalism received popular acclaim more recently in Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 documentary Supersize Me, where he lived on junk food for a month to prove it was damaging America’s health.

At the risk of sounding trite, I should say we could learn from them: a fact is a fact only once you have learnt or experienced it first-hand.

 

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