George Orwell Identifies the Main Enemy of the Free Press: It’s the “Intellectual Cowardice” of the Press Itself

Image by BBC, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Tucked away in the style sec­tion of yesterday’s Wash­ing­ton Post—after the Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States basi­cal­ly declared alle­giance to a hos­tile dic­ta­tor, again, after issu­ing yet more denun­ci­a­tions of the U.S. press as “ene­mies of the people”—was an admo­ni­tion from Mar­garet Sul­li­van to the “real­i­ty-based press.” “The job will require clar­i­ty and moral force,” writes Sul­li­van, “in ways we’re not always all that com­fort­able with.”

Many have exhaust­ed them­selves in ask­ing, what makes it so hard for jour­nal­ists to tell the truth with “clar­i­ty and moral force”? Answers range from the conspiratorial—journalists and edi­tors are bought off or coerced—to the mun­dane: they nor­mal­ize aber­rant behav­ior in order to relieve cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance and main­tain a com­fort­able sta­tus quo. While the for­mer expla­na­tion can’t be dis­missed out of hand in the sense that most jour­nal­ists ulti­mate­ly work for media mega­con­glom­er­ates with their own vest­ed inter­ests, the lat­ter is just as often offered by crit­ics like NYU’s Jay Rosen.

Estab­lished jour­nal­ists “want things to be nor­mal,” writes Rosen, which includes pre­serv­ing access to high-lev­el sources. The press main­tains a pre­tense to objec­tiv­i­ty and even-hand­ed­ness, even when doing so avoids obvi­ous truths about the men­dac­i­ty of their sub­jects. Main­stream jour­nal­ists place “pro­tect­ing them­selves against crit­i­cism,” Rosen wrote in 2016, “before serv­ing their read­ers. This is trou­bling because that kind of self-pro­tec­tion has far less legit­i­ma­cy than the duties of jour­nal­ism, espe­cial­ly when the crit­i­cism itself is bare­ly valid.”

As is far too often the case these days, the ques­tions we grap­ple with now are the same that vexed George Orwell over fifty years ago in his many lit­er­ary con­fronta­tions with total­i­tar­i­an­ism in its vary­ing forms. Orwell faced what he con­strued as a kind of cen­sor­ship when he fin­ished his satir­i­cal nov­el Ani­mal Farm. The man­u­script was reject­ed by four pub­lish­ers, Orwell not­ed, in a pref­ace intend­ed to accom­pa­ny the book called “The Free­dom of the Press.” The pref­ace was “not includ­ed in the first edi­tion of the work,” the British Library points out, “and it remained undis­cov­ered until 1971.”

“Only one of these” pub­lish­ers “had any ide­o­log­i­cal motive,” writes Orwell. “Two had been pub­lish­ing anti-Russ­ian books for years, and the oth­er had no notice­able polit­i­cal colour. One pub­lish­er actu­al­ly start­ed by accept­ing the book, but after mak­ing pre­lim­i­nary arrange­ments he decid­ed to con­sult the Min­istry of Infor­ma­tion, who appear to have warned him, or at any rate strong­ly advised him, against pub­lish­ing it.” While Orwell finds this devel­op­ment trou­bling, “the chief dan­ger to free­dom of thought and speech,” he writes, was not gov­ern­ment cen­sor­ship.

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. In this coun­try intel­lec­tu­al cow­ardice is the worst ene­my a writer or jour­nal­ist has to face, and that fact does not seem to me to have had the dis­cus­sion it deserves.

The “dis­com­fort” of intel­lec­tu­al hon­esty, Orwell writes, meant that even dur­ing wartime, with the Min­istry of Information’s often ham-fist­ed attempts at press cen­sor­ship, “the sin­is­ter fact about lit­er­ary cen­sor­ship in Eng­land is that it is large­ly vol­un­tary.” Self-cen­sor­ship came down to mat­ters of deco­rum, Orwell argues—or as we would put it today, “civil­i­ty.” Obe­di­ence to “an ortho­doxy” meant that while “it is not exact­ly for­bid­den to say this, that or the oth­er… 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,” not by gov­ern­ment agents, but by a crit­i­cal back­lash aimed at pre­serv­ing a sense of “nor­mal­cy” at all costs.

At stake for Orwell is no less than the fun­da­men­tal lib­er­al prin­ci­ple of free speech, in defense of which he invokes the famous quote from Voltaire as well as Rosa Luxembourg’s def­i­n­i­tion of free­dom as “free­dom for the oth­er fel­low.” “Lib­er­ty of speech and of the press,” he writes, does not demand “absolute liberty”—though he stops short of defin­ing its lim­its. But it does demand the courage to tell uncom­fort­able truths, even such truths as are, per­haps, polit­i­cal­ly inex­pe­di­ent or detri­men­tal to the prospects of a lucra­tive career. “If lib­er­ty means any­thing at all,” Orwell con­cludes, “it means the right to tell peo­ple what they do not want to hear.”

Read his com­plete essay, “Free­dom of the Press,” here.

via Brain­pick­ings

Relat­ed Con­tent:

George Orwell Reveals the Role & Respon­si­bil­i­ty of the Writer “In an Age of State Con­trol”

George Orwell Pre­dict­ed Cam­eras Would Watch Us in Our Homes; He Nev­er Imag­ined We’d Glad­ly Buy and Install Them Our­selves

George Orwell Cre­ates a List of the Four Essen­tial Rea­sons Writ­ers Write

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Michael Coleman says:

    The issues which large­ly plagued George Orwell all those years ago have remained to a less­er or greater degree unad­dressed. It is then per­haps unsur­pris­ing to find these same issues re-appear­ing again and again. Inter­est­ing food for thought indeed, Thank you for shar­ing open cul­ture!

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