Orwell at the BBC: A Reflection
Professor Jean Seaton on the formation of two 'national institutions'
20th October 2022. This week the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) celebrated the 100th anniversary of its founding. Five years go, on Tuesday 7th November 2017, a statue of George Orwell was unveiled in the piazza of the BBC’s New Broadcasting House by Baroness Whitaker and Orwell’s son, Richard Blair. The statue, by sculptor Martin Jennings, was commissioned and paid for by the George Orwell Memorial Fund (which is not associated with the Orwell Foundation). Our Director, Professor Jean Seaton spoke after the unveiling - you can read an edited transcript of her remarks below.
A statue? Of Orwell? Eric Blair trembled on the edge of failure for most of his writing life. He was a socialist who valued many conservative things. However, his lethal criticism of other socialists was not because he rejected their goal but because he identified the vanity and distorted perceptions of many who claimed to be on the side of the left and freedom. Was he a hero? Or a martyr? A cult has developed around him that pigeonholes someone who consciously wriggled away from definitions. He was, I think we can all agree – awkward.
Orwell worked for the BBC in 1941-3. He would have preferred to be fighting. He said later that it was a waste of time, and that the BBC was ‘something halfway between a girl’s school and a lunatic asylum.’
What did he give the BBC, and the nation, at a time of total war? A cunning way into the Indian sub-continent: he provided an international platform for their distinguished (and largely anti-imperialist) writers. Orwell was a journalist – he wrote a thousand letters on the way to Wigan Pier, a book in which the horrifying reality of poverty – and the smell of it – is described alongside the dignity of those who live in it– because they are recognised as particular, individual. And there is a challenge to the reader in it as well. When invited to give a BBC broadcast, his reply was careful: ‘I will do the talk if I can be reasonably frank. I am not going to say anything I regard as untruthful.’
I particularly like ‘I regard’: he knows he is telling us that he is fallible and puts this scrupulous hesitation in every sentence. But that is what makes it so overwhelmingly persuasive.
What did he get from the BBC (even though he believed himself to have been wasting his very finite time)? A sense of a big bureaucracy, the ferocious discipline of broadcasting to audiences who were taking risks to listen and who were hearing, not like a reader in their own head, but in the mysterious collective space of the ether. He learnt how to edit and cut: during the Orwell Foundation’s production of 1984 Live we experienced just how perfect his phrasing is. He learnt the innards of propaganda – all of this goes into Nineteen Eighty-Four. In many ways, the BBC also found itself in during the Second World War: perhaps these two national institutions Orwell and the BBC come out of that moment.
Orwell has a voice that is peculiarly authoritative, impartial, and aloof. It hovers over everything. But it is also disconcertingly personal: Orwell is present in his own work. Given a sentence of Orwell you know you are in Orwell-land. It is a mental space. The BBC is also a mental space, where the values can be discerned in every word and image. But the peculiarly disconcerting and uncomfortable aspect of Orwell-land is his self-analysis: Orwell invites you into his own failures. And not the nice acceptable ones, but the nasty ones. He was unflinching in his self-criticism. He opens up his own cowardice and mistakes. It can bring you up sharp.
As only Orwell could, he marked the BBC as he left – almost prissily: ‘I feel that I have been treated with the greatest generosity and allowed very great latitude…on no occasion have I been compelled to say on air anything that I would not say as a private individual.’
Everything Orwell ever wrote is an extended polemic of seeing the truth, however ugly, in ourselves. Perhaps this was a product also of the war – but seems to me a mark of democratic principle. The breaking down of the barriers between people and nations depends for Orwell on a shared reality. Surely that is the object of the BBC.
Jean Seaton is Professor of Media History at the University of Westminster and the Official Historian of the BBC. Jean became Director of The Orwell Foundation (then, The Orwell Prize) in 2007, taking over from Sir Bernard Crick. Under her stewardship the prize has become Britain’s premier prize for political writing. She is the author of Carnage and the Media: the Making and Breaking of News about Violence (Penguin, 2005), with James Curran, Power without Responsibility: the Press and Broadcasting in Britain (8th edition, 2014) and Pinkoes and Traitors: the BBC and the nation, 1974-1987 (2015) and is a founding member of several active media NGOs, including Full Fact and the Reuters Institute. She broadcasts regularly on historical, political and cultural matters, including Orwell and his legacy.