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The Freedom of the Press
On George Orwell's unused preface to 'Animal Farm'
George Orwell’s Animal Farm, one of the greatest political works of the twentieth century, was first published on this day, 17th August, in 1945. Orwell’s ‘fairy story’ - an allegory of Stalin’s Russia told through the story of the uprising of the animals of Manor Farm - established his reputation as ‘the greatest satirist in the English language since Swift’. But he faced a battle to get it published: the book was turned down by at least four publishers.
For Orwell, like most authors, rejection wasn’t an unfamiliar experience (Faber, for instance, had also turned down Down and Out in Paris and London). But in the case of Animal Farm he had good reason to believe that publishers and editors were simply ‘frightened of public opinion’. By 1943, when Orwell was approaching prospective publishers, Russia was a British ally in the war against Nazi Germany and there was an unwillingness to take on a book which singled the country’s regime out for criticism. One publisher openly admitted to Orwell that they had been warned off the book by an official in the Ministry of Information (it later transpired that this particular rejection had been encouraged by a Soviet spy.)
Orwell’s encounter with ‘intellectual cowardice’ resulted in the coruscating preface now known as ‘The Freedom of the Press’, in which he forcefully criticised the state of ‘freedom of thought and speech’ in wartime Britain. As Orwell’s biographer Bernard Crick put it, the preface works to ‘pull together his thinking on one of the recurrent themes of his journalism— […] that cowardice is as great a threat as official censorship.’
Strikingly, although the preface was never published in Orwell’s lifetime, it is the original context for many lines which have gone on to become his most widely-shared quotations, perhaps most notably the dictum that ‘if liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they don’t want to hear’.
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Although space was left for an introduction in the proof sheets of the first edition, Orwell seems to have never sent the preface to the publishers. Crick assumed that he thought better of including it - and thought that he was right to have done so:
…the fable might than have lost its general resonance, might have appeared precisely to be just about Stalin, and the universality of its reflections on the corruption that can come from power might have seemed just the projection of an English literary quarrel.
After the book’s eventual publication by Secker and Warburg in 1945, and after a few further rejections in the United States, it soon became clear that ‘Orwell did not need to attack those who had tried to stop the book’s appearing or who had not seen its genius’. Animal Farm was an immediate success, translated into at least 16 languages before he died. Along with his masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four, the book established Orwell ‘as the greatest satirist in the English language since Swift and among the finest journalists and essayists since Hazlitt.’
It was only in 1972 that the preface was discovered by Ian Angus, then Deputy Librarian at University College London, in the Orwell Archive. Subsequently, with the approval of Orwell’s widow Sonia, Crick published ‘The Freedom of the Press’ in the Times Literary Supplement (Crick would later go on to found The Orwell Prize with the proceeds of his biography of Orwell). You can read the beginning of ‘The Freedom of the Press’ below. The preface is available in full on The Orwell Foundation website.
The Freedom of the Press: Orwell’s unused preface to Animal Farm
Written 1945, first published 1972
This book was first thought of, so far as the central idea goes, in 1937, but was not written down until about the end of 1943. By the time when it came to be written it was obvious that there would be great difficulty in getting it published (in spite of the present book shortage which ensures that anything describable as a book will ‘sell’), and in the event it was refused by four publishers. Only one of these had any ideological motive. 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 the 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. Here is an extract from his letter:
I mentioned the reaction I had had from an important official in the Ministry of Information with regard to Animal Farm. I must confess that this expression of opinion has given me seriously to think… I can see now that it might be regarded as something which it was highly ill-advised to publish at the present time. If the fable were addressed generally to dictators and dictatorships at large then publication would be all right, but the fable does follow, as I see now, so completely the progress of the Russian Soviets and their two dictators, that it can apply only to Russia, to the exclusion of the other dictatorships. Another thing: it would be less offensive if the predominant caste in the fable were not pigs.1 I think the choice of pigs as the ruling caste will no doubt give offence to many people, and particularly to anyone who is a bit touchy, as undoubtedly the Russians are.
This kind of thing is not a good symptom. Obviously it is not desirable that a government department should have any power of censorship (except security censorship, which no one objects to in war time) over books which are not officially sponsored. But the chief danger to freedom of thought and speech at this moment is not the direct interference of the MOI or any official body. 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.
Any fair-minded person with journalistic experience will admit that during this war official censorship has not been particularly irksome. We have not been subjected to the kind of totalitarian ‘co-ordination’ that it might have been reasonable to expect. The press has some justified grievances, but on the whole the Government has behaved well and has been surprisingly tolerant of minority opinions. 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. Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news—things which on their own merits would get the big headlines—being kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact. 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. But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals, as well as in plays, films and radio. 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. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but 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. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.
At this moment what is demanded by the prevailing orthodoxy is an uncritical admiration of Soviet Russia. Everyone knows this, nearly everyone acts on it. Any serious criticism of the Soviet régime, any disclosure of facts which the Soviet government would prefer to keep hidden, is next door to unprintable. And this nation-wide conspiracy to flatter our ally takes place, curiously enough, against a background of genuine intellectual tolerance. For though you are not allowed to criticise the Soviet government, at least you are reasonably free to criticise our own. Hardly anyone will print an attack on Stalin, but it is quite safe to attack Churchill, at any rate in books and periodicals. And throughout five years of war, during two or three of which we were fighting for national survival, countless books, pamphlets and articles advocating a compromise peace have been published without interference. More, they have been published without exciting much disapproval. So long as the prestige of the USSR is not involved, the principle of free speech has been reasonably well upheld. There are other forbidden topics, and I shall mention some of them presently, but the prevailing attitude towards the USSR is much the most serious symptom. It is, as it were, spontaneous, and is not due to the action of any pressure group.
The servility with which the greater part of the English intelligentsia have swallowed and repeated Russian propaganda from 1941 onwards would be quite astounding if it were not that they have behaved similarly on several earlier occasions. On one controversial issue after another the Russian viewpoint has been accepted without examination and then publicised with complete disregard to historical truth or intellectual decency. To name only one instance, the BBC celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Red Army without mentioning Trotsky. This was about as accurate as commemorating the battle of Trafalgar without mentioning Nelson, but it evoked no protest from the English intelligentsia. In the internal struggles in the various occupied countries, the British press has in almost all cases sided with the faction favoured by the Russians and libelled the opposing faction, sometimes suppressing material evidence in order to do so. A particularly glaring case was that of Colonel Mihailovich, the Jugoslav Chetnik leader. The Russians, who had their own Jugoslav protege in Marshal Tito, accused Mihailovich of collaborating with the Germans. This accusation was promptly taken up by the British press: Mihailovich’s supporters were given no chance of answering it, and facts contradicting it were simply kept out of print. In July of 1943 the Germans offered a reward of 100,000 gold crowns for the capture of Tito, and a similar reward for the capture of Mihailovich. The British press ‘splashed’ the reward for Tito, but only one paper mentioned (in small print) the reward for Mihailovich: and the charges of collaborating with the Germans continued. Very similar things happened during the Spanish civil war. Then, too, the factions on the Republican side which the Russians were determined to crush were recklessly libelled in the English leftwing press, and any statement in their defence even in letter form, was refused publication. At present, not only is serious criticism of the USSR considered reprehensible, but even the fact of the existence of such criticism is kept secret in some cases. For example, shortly before his death Trotsky had written a biography of Stalin. One may assume that it was not an altogether unbiased book, but obviously it was saleable. An American publisher had arranged to issue it and the book was in print — I believe the review copies had been sent out — when the USSR entered the war. The book was immediately withdrawn. Not a word about this has ever appeared in the British press, though clearly the existence of such a book, and its suppression, was a news item worth a few paragraphs […]
It is not quite clear whether this suggested modification is Mr…’s own idea, or originated with the Ministry of Information; but it seems to have the official ring about it. (George Orwell)
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