In his classic essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell observed that “in our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.” Vagueness, euphemism, abstraction, pretentiousness—these were some of the instruments of evasiveness and linguistic imprecision that Orwell catalogued and castigated in his analysis of the way “the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” By 1946, when that essay appeared, Orwell had had considerable experience of the way politics and the English language intermingled. During the war, Orwell worked for a couple of years at the BBC devising anti-Nazi propaganda. It is said that his experience there furnished him with many of the intellectual props for his masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four: the idea of Newspeak, for example, and even Room 101, home of “the worst thing in the world,” which was the designation of a BBC conference room.
We had occasion to think anew about Orwell and the BBC when we read the astonishing news that Mark Thompson, the outgoing Director-General of the organization, had rejected a proposal (“turned [it] down . . . flat,” as the Labour peeress Joan Bakewell put it) that a statue of Orwell be placed in front of the BBC’s £1 billion new headquarters at the top of Regent Street. The reason? Orwell was “too Left-wing.”
Mr. Thompson’s remark, the Telegraph drily noted, “will surprise critics of the BBC, who have long accused the corporation of liberal bias.” Indeed. The decay of the BBC has featured intermittently in the pages of The New Criterion, in this space as well as in John Gross’s bulletins from London over the years. Some of the criticism was directed at what, with a little squid-ink squirt of obfuscating understatement that Orwell would have savored, the Telegraph called “liberal bias.” “Left-wing ideological animus” would have been a more accurate if less emollient way of phrasing it. A lot of what we’ve had to say about the BBC contrasts the institution as it was in its pre-Sixties heyday with what’s become of it in the aftermath of the assaults of political correctness and multiculturalism.
Back when Orwell labored in the corridors of the BBC, Britain’s premier news organization really was British, proudly, defiantly so. An institution that used to embody British virtues, the BBC now routinely traduces them. In the opening months of World War II, for example, the BBC helped secure the destruction of the German warship Admiral Graf Spee, which was harrying British shipping with alarming success, by falsely reporting that the aircraft carrier Ark Royal and the battleship Renown were operating near the German ship. In those days, the BBC was firmly on the side of Western culture. Another, more recent carrier bearing the name Ark Royal took part in the second Iraq war. It is an emblematic irony that sailors aboard the Ark Royal turned off the news feed from the BBC in the opening days of the war because they found it indistinguishable from enemy propaganda. (It is emblematic in another way that the Ark Royal, like most of the Royal Navy, was decommissioned early a few years ago.)
But the degradation of the BBC is not only political—or perhaps we should say that the politics in question are as much cultural as political in the narrow sense. There has been, as John Gross noted in a “London Journal” for us in 1998, a “general debasing of standards in recent years” that “is no longer seriously in question (except of course among the Corporation’s own executives).” Among the evidences John adduced was a BBC television program about the poets Wordsworth and Coleridge. Wordsworth’s stock among the politically correct has been severely depressed of late. Here was a poet who went from “trailing clouds of glory” and praising the French Revolution to becoming an establishment icon, poet laureate, and a political conservative to boot. Coleridge, although he had the liabilities of being a political conservative as well as a serious-minded Christian, at least had the redeeming virtue (if “virtue” is the correct term) of being a drug addict whose irresponsible behavior left a swath of misery among his friends and family. Whom do you suppose the BBC lionizes? Yes, that’s right, the “junkie of genius” is the hero of the piece. “And in case we still have any doubts where our sympathies are supposed to lie,” John reported, “Coleridge is going to be played by one of the most sought-after stars of the moment—Robert Carlyle, who made his name in the celebrated movie about male strippers, The Full Monty. It’s prime time material.”
Any institution as large and multifarious as the bbc will escape easy summary. And there is always the temptation to idealize the past. No doubt there were always things to criticize about the BBC. But comparing the BBC of today with the BBC of forty or fifty years ago presents a melancholy contrast. John acknowledges the pertinence of the old Victorian joke about the past: “I’m afraid it’s not what it was—but then it never was.” But in the case of the BBC, he observes, “the reputation it built up during its first fifty or sixty years was justified. With all its faults, with all the necessary limitations of a service that has to cater to fifty million people, it achieved great things in every department from news reporting to education, from classical music to popular entertainment.”
And today? John’s column—one of several that touched on this subject—retailed the sad litany: not only the politicization and dumbing down but also the extraordinary coarsening of the BBC’s programming. Perhaps what Orwell said about the English language is also true of institutions like the BBC. “The point is,” Orwell wrote at the end of his essay, “that the process is reversible. 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.”
Which brings us back to Mark Thompson, that outgoing Director-General of the BBC. Should the BBC erect a statue of George Orwell outside its new headquarters? We think the jury is still out. Not because Orwell was “too Left-wing” (a designation that would have amused the author of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four) to be so honored, but because the BBC has strayed so far from the cultural and political standards which it was created to promulgate.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 Number 1, on page 3
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