Politics & the BBC
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.