Thursday, 27 June 2002

ORWELL WAS NOT BIG BROTHER

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 27 June 2002

I apologise for returning to the subject of George Orwell’s list of alleged Stalinist sympathisers, but Elizabeth C Hazlehurst’s letter a fortnight ago (Tribune June 14) demands a response — not least because she got her facts wrong.

What actually happened was this. With his friend Richard Rees, Orwell in the late 1940s compiled a notebook listing people prominent in literary and political circles, mainly in Britain and the US, who they thought might be “crypto-communists” (secret members of the Communist Party) or “fellow-travellers” (non-members of the CP who publicly defended Stalin’s Russia).

There were — are — 135 names in this notebook, and most were published in a volume of Peter Davison’s edition of Orwell’s Collected Works in 1998 (the ones not published were those of people who were still alive, and they were excluded to avoid the possibility of libel actions).

There are four important factual points here:
  • This was a speculative list two friends put together for their own amusement. It was not intended for wider circulation, let alone publication.
  • Although some of the names in the notebook have notes appended that identify them as probable covert CP members or even Soviet agents, far more are defined as merely na├»ve, dishonest, sentimental or silly in their attitudes to the Soviet Union and the CP.
  • Orwell and Rees were largely accurate in their assessments. Nearly everyone in the notebook had expressed gushing admiration for Stalinist Russia or participated in CP-run campaigns.
  • The list in the notebook was not the list Orwell gave in 1949 to Celia Kirwan, a former girlfriend who had asked his advice on who should and who should not be asked to write by the Foreign Office propaganda outfit for which she worked, the newly established Information Research Department. The IRD list contained only “about 35” names, according to Orwell, and it has never been published: for reasons best known to the Public Records Office, it has been withheld from release. Although the names Hazlehurst mentions in her letter — Nancy Cunard, Cecil Day Lewis, Tom Driberg, John Steinbeck, Orson Welles et al — are in Orwell’s notebook, we don’t yet know whether they are on the IRD list.
Of course, the facts aren’t what are really at stake. The big questions are whether Orwell was right to compile his notebook for his own purposes and whether he was right to hand over the shorter list to the IRD.

On the first of these, I fail to see how anyone can object to a political journalist keeping tabs on his or her subjects’ political affiliations and backgrounds. Every political journalist does it. Unless you know, say, that the chair of campaign A is a member of the central committee of a Stalinist micro-party, or that the leader of trade union B is affiliated to a Trotskyist groupuscule, or that the columnist for respectable broadsheet C was once a lobbyist for Slobodan Milosevic, or that the Tory MP for D has repeatedly taken freebie holidays in Northern Cyprus, you miss important stories.

Handing over the shorter list to the IRD is more controversial — but I still don’t think that it amounted to more than a minor error of judgment. The purpose of the list was to advise the Foreign Office about whom not to hire to write articles, pamphlets and books for a new outfit that had been set up by the Labour government to counter Communist propaganda abroad with arguments for democratic socialism.

Now, it’s perfectly possible to argue that the IRD should never have been set up on the grounds that a democracy should have no recourse to propaganda — and there is a strong case for believing that in later years its role in spreading rumour and disinformation was reprehensible.

But in 1949, the idea of the IRD did not seem at all shady. There was good reason to fear Stalin’s intentions in Europe. The Soviet Union, itself a vile dictatorship, had ruthlessly suppressed nascent democracies in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, imposing pliant puppet dictatorships and imprisoning democratic socialists. West Berlin was under Soviet military blockade, and it seemed to many that Stalin was preparing for all-out war. Orwell was by no means alone on the Left in thinking a British socialist propaganda effort justified.

If there remains a case against Orwell’s action, it is that he did not know to what use his list would be put by the state. That was certainly a risk — but in the circumstances of the time it was an understandable one to take. It certainly should not be allowed to besmirch his reputation.

Friday, 14 June 2002

'NO' TO THE EURO IS FOR TORY DUPES

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 14 June 2002

Last week’s revelation that the campaign against British membership of the euro is planning to keep the Tories out of the public eye and rely instead on the efforts of a bunch of alternative comedians – or rather, an alternative bunch of comedians – is highly significant.

It shows for the first time that the no campaign is extremely nervous. The opinion polls have begun to turn as voters realise that the euro carries no threat to their well-being, the Government is looking increasingly ready to go for the referendum – and the no campaign’s focus groups are telling it that it hasn’t a hope in hell if it is seen, as it is today, as a Tory front organisation.

Whether Vic Reeves and Harry Enfield have the wherewithal to change this public perception is, to say the least, questionable. But this is not just because they lack the gravitas to convince on an issue of such importance or because the big idea behind the recruitment of their comic talents, that the euro is a “joke currency”, is asinine and puerile.

Far more important is the brute fact that the popular perception of the anti-euro campaign as a Tory front is pretty much accurate.

Consider the following:
  • The Tories were the only major party to fight the last general election on an anti-euro platform.
  • Their current leader, Iain Duncan Smith, rose to political prominence as a Eurosceptic rebel against the Major Government in the 1990s and owes his current position to the popularity of his virulent anti-Europeanism in his party.
  • The Tories constitute by far the largest body of organised anti-euro opinion in the country.
  • Tory activists dominate the anti-euro campaign at every level.
  • The no campaign is funded by Tory businessmen.
  • Only the Tories can benefit politically from a no victory in the referendum – and only a no victory in the referendum gives the Tories any hope of subsequent electoral recovery.
It is no accident, as the Marxists used to say, that the man who announced the Tories’ backseat role in the no campaign, its former director, Dominic Cummings, was speaking in his current capacity as director of strategy at Conservative Central Office – a position to which he was appointed by none other than Mr Duncan Smith.

The promised low profile for the Tories is, in short, nothing but a Tory ruse – and those non-Tories who have rallied to the no campaign after being assured that it would not be Tory-dominated, Labour leftists and Greens as well as comedians, have allowed themselves to be conned. They are dupes of the Tories – just as 1930s pacifists were dupes of Hitler and liberal members of Communist front organisations were dupes of Moscow.

OK, I exaggerate, but only a little. I am of course aware that many Labour Left and Green opponents of the single currency are not knee-jerk anti-Europeans, that there are legitimate criticisms of the way the euro operates and that some on the Left who are against the single currency also want to dissociate themselves from the official Tory-led no campaign.

But the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. The truth is that there is no way that an independent left campaign against the euro will be able to make itself heard in the run-up to the referendum: it simply won’t have the resources or indeed the political clout to make an impact. (Unlike in 1975, no one of Cabinet rank is likely to be in the no camp.)

The referendum campaign will be a contest not between advocates of capitalist Europe and proponents of a socialist Britain standing alone, but between those who want to be part of a capitalist (but at least caring) Europe and those who want to let the market rip in an authoritarian offshore tax-haven. Anti-euro leftists will have the choice of watching from the margins shouting irrelevant slogans or throwing their lot in with the Tories.

Either way, they will play the role of useful idiots in a reactionary populist xenophobic crusade – and either way they cannot win. If Britain votes no, the victors will not be those who dream of a proper left-wing Government in Britain or those who believe that the European Central Bank should do more about unemployment: they will be Mr Duncan Smith and his followers, whose currently hopeless predicament will be transformed. And if Britain votes yes, well, the anti-euro left will be deservedly and universally lampooned as an irrelevance – and shunned as Tory stooges by the rest of the left.

Sunday, 9 June 2002

TWENITETH CENTURY HACKS

Paul Anderson, review of People's Witness:The Journalist in Modern Politics by Fred Inglis (Yale University Press £19.99), Tribune, 9 June 2002

Traditionally, books that tell the history of journalism come in two kinds. On one hand, there are memoirs by veteran journalists, typically with titles like Witness to History or Sixty Years on Fleet Street, which are stuffed with anecdotes about observing great events, mixing with the famous and infamous and scooping the opposition. On the other, there are accounts, mainly by academics, that concentrate on the institutional, social and political contexts in which journalists have worked: histories of newspapers and broadcasting organisations, heavyweight biographies of press barons, social histories of the media, and so on.

Fred Inglis's big idea was to produce a book on 20th-century journalists that synthesises the two approaches — "one which offers to reorder a galaxy of starring and not-so-starring, more dimly significant names in a new historical constellation", as he puts it somewhat inelegantly his introduction. Unfortunately, People's Witness, although undeniably pacy and enthusiastic, does not in the end deliver the goods.

The book mixes brief lives of Inglis's journalistic heroes (and a few villains) with observations about the changing nature of the mass media and summaries of the ideas of various sociologists of the media, all topped off with ruminations on myths of journalism in fiction and on the influence of fictions on journalism.

The good guys are those journalists, most of them foreign correspondents or essayists rather than reporters or commentators on domestic politics, who made it their vocation to speak truth to power, among them Martha Gellhorn, William Shirer, George Orwell, I. F. Stone, James Cameron and Harold Evans. The bad guys are those who kow-towed to governments and big business and pandered to popular prejudice. Which is fair enough — and refreshing in this cynical age — except that Inglis's heroes are already so familiar. Although his sketches are well drawn, they are superficial. If he has done any archival research he has hidden the evidence well.

Inglis is better on the way the media industry has changed over the past century, where he draws heavily on James Curran and Jean Seaton's classic Power Without Responsibility, and his short accounts of the thoughts of Max Weber, Jurgen Habermas, Pierre Bourdieu et al are competent if hardly ground-breaking. When he gets to outlining his own views about journalism, fiction and truth, however, his predilections for prolixity and opacity get the better of him. "The distinction between history and myth is harder and harder to draw," he concludes after a particularly convoluted chapter on recent films about journalists. Er, why?

People's Witness is also flawed by annoying errors. In the space of a couple of pages on 1980s Britain, to take just one example, Inglis makes it appear that Rupert Murdoch shut down The Times for a year (that happened in 1978-79 before he appeared on the scene), renders the Social Democratic Party as the Social Democratic Alliance and has Robert Maxwell drowning in the Meditterranean rather than off the Canaries. These are hardly fatal mistakes, but they add to the impression that this book was researched and written in great haste.