On November 7, the BBC unveiled a new statue honoring Eric Blair, who worked as a “talks assistant” at the BBC from 1941 to 1943. He apparently spent quite a bit of time on the air before submitting his resignation letter on September 24, 1943. For reasons that will become apparent, the statue will be placed at the edge of the BBC property.
“Why,” you ask, “is someone who worked at the BBC for two years getting a statue?” You probably know Blair under his nom de plume: George Orwell. The BBC flatly rejected a previous attempt to erect a statue in 2011, on the grounds that Orwell was too left-wing. Irony is now officially dead.
In 1941, the beginning of World War II in Europe, the British government was trying to find jobs for smart oddballs. This program found Alan Turing. It also found Blair, assigning him to the BBC Overseas Service as a “talks assistant.” Describing his tenure at the BBC in his wartime diary, he called it “Half lunatic asylum, half girls’ school.” In conversation he was less polite: “half whorehouse.”
The BBC Was Orwell’s Model for Dystopian Fake News
In his famous dystopian novel, “1984,” Orwell called the government news agency the “Minitrue [Ministry] of Fake News.” His writing about it left little doubt that he was lampooning the BBC.
The desk Orwell occupied at the BBC was located in a converted retail store. In “1984,” so was Winston Smith’s dingy desk in the Minitrue. Conveniently, the memory hole was right next to the desk. Smith’s job was assembling fake versions of back issues of The Times. He was forced to follow the Ministry of Truth’s dictums about “alternative facts.”
Reading between the lines of Orwell’s resignation letter, it’s pretty clear that he had a dim view of the BBC’s version of the truth. He clearly states that he was never censored or asked to perform tasks he would have turned down. Rather, he says, “I am tendering my resignation because for some time past I have been conscious that I was wasting my own time and the public money on doing work that produces no result.”
The complete letter is below. Warning to those under 50: this is what typewriters once produced.
‘The Aim of Newspeak Is to Narrow the Range of Thought’
The BBC cafeteria was in the basement of the building. Careful readers will remember the canteen in “1984”: “Winston and Syme pushed their trays beneath the grille. On to each was dumped swiftly the regulation lunch—a metal pannikin of pinkish-grey stew, a hunk of bread, a cube of cheese, a mug of milkless Victory Coffee, and one saccharine tablet.”
I’ll spare you the rest of the gruesome details about that lunch. But if the BBC cafeteria came within a few light-years of that description, it must have been truly awful. In “1984,” Smith’s lunch companion, Syme, is working on the 11th edition of the Newspeak Dictionary.
‘The Eleventh Edition is the definitive edition,’ he said. ‘We’re getting the language into its final shape—the shape it’s going to have when nobody speaks anything else. When we’ve finished with it, people like you will have to learn it all over again. You think, I dare say, that our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words—scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting the language down to the bone. The Eleventh Edition won’t contain a single word that will become obsolete before the year 2050.’
…‘Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed, will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten.’
Does that sound familiar? Anyone read The New York Times style guide lately? Orwell did not come up with this idea himself. The BBC was just getting started. Today we see the ongoing deprecation of the English language. Once upon a time, the shorthand “trans” meant either transsexual or transvestite. There is a clear demarcation between the definitions of those two words. Today, there is a single word, trans, that encompasses both terms. We replaced two words with one. We are all doing Syme’s work.
A Prophet of Our Times
Orwell’s novel speaks of the “subs,” the 25 percent of one’s income that must be donated to “voluntary subscriptions.” There were so many of these that it was nearly impossible to keep track of them. Anyone who has ever worked in an office lately is aware of similar multiple “voluntary” activities and expenditures: birthdays, work anniversaries, retirements, Groundhog Day—the list could go on forever. As a branch of the British government, the BBC undoubtedly hosted a number of such activities.
Parsons joins Syme and Smith at their lunch table. He proceeds to regale them with a tale about his daughter and two friends turning in a spy. How did they recognize the spy? “She spotted he was wearing a funny kind of shoes—said she’d never seen anyone wearing shoes like that before. So the chances were he was a foreigner. Pretty smart for a nipper of seven, eh?’” As far as I know, the BBC has not promoted activities like this. But maybe “See something, say something” sounds familiar.
The headline on the Evening Standard website screamed the news: “George Orwell makes unambiguous return to BBC after 74 years.” The Times of London was, of course, more discreet: “Orwell’s prophecy of our fake-news world.” It remarks on Orwell’s legacy thus:
You can see Orwell’s dystopian vision reflected in the bristling CCTV cameras that watch our every move, the covert interception of emails and telephone calls, and the battle to control the news, the past, and the language. ‘Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller,’ warned Orwell, a precise description of government by Twitter.
…Not all claims to truth are equal; some are more equal than others.
Orwell was indeed a prophet of our times. No sensible person will fault his forecasting simply because it was off by a few decades. While it’s nice that the BBC is finally honoring one of its most famous employees, the irony is inescapable.