Wednesday, 20 April 2011

George Orwell as the voice of dissent in the Popular Press between 1937 and 1945

The press card photo of George Orwell, circa 1933.

Throughout George Orwell’s life and careers - from a member of the Burma Police Force, to Polemic Essayist, Journalist, Editor, and Novelist - Politics, and a fundamental sense of justice were ever present in his output. Orwell had led a conventional middle class life up until his appointment to the Burmese police where he began to grow disenfranchised with the Imperialism he witnessed in action on a daily basis. He would, as the 1920’s turned into the economic depression of the 30’s, consider himself to be an anarchist, if only in sentiment rather than in practice. But as the 30’s wore on, Orwell’s experiences, that became his first works of reportage Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier, would plant the desires for effective socialism if not the conviction to actively seek it out. This all changed however with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, when Orwell would suddenly find his conviction and find himself fighting on the frontline against Franco. After he was wounded and was forced to flee Spain. Orwell found his political views (based on his experiences with the communists in Spain) to be anathema to even the left-wing press in Britain at the time - from that point on Orwell’s journalistic and fictional works would become an often polemic stance for ‘Democratic Socialism’ as he saw it, in the face of Totalitarianism in all its forms.

The following essay will look primarily at the journalistic works of George Orwell between 1937 and 1945 and discuss how his dissenting views manifested in and co-existed with his Journalistic roles.

Orwell’s first output after returning from the Spanish Civil War in 1937 was the essay Spilling the Spanish Beans published in the left-wing publication New English Weekly in July and September of that year. In it Orwell attacked both the left and right wing media for their propagandising and distortion of the truth of the real struggle in Spain.

“The Spanish War has probably produced a richer crop of lies than any event since the Great War of 1914-18, but I honestly doubt, in spite of all those hecatombs of nuns who have been raped and crucified before the eyes of Daily Mail reporters, whether it is the pro-Fascist newspapers that have done the most harm. It is the left-wing papers, the News Chronicle and the Daily Worker, with their far subtler methods of distortion, that have prevented the British public from grasping the real nature of the struggle.”1

Orwell also goes on to attack the Stalin-backed communist element in the Spanish government that he saw as betraying what the people of Spain had won in their revolution. This was not a popular stance to hold at the time - Stalin’s communist government of Russia was held in high regard due to the ‘Five Year Plan’ to modernise the Soviet Union - and rumours of Orwell’s Trotskyite leanings made him a pariah. In the article Such was the Journalism by David Thompson, he describes the post-Spain Orwell as retaining “a basic trust in people but showed more distrust of political slogans and parties.”2 And in the Essay Orwell - Socialist, Anarchist, or what…? Claus B. Storgaard sums up Orwell’s political thoughts at this time:

“Orwell understood that the world was moving towards the totalitarian state. The enemy was of course still Hitler and Mussolini, but especially the USSR was dangerous, because the country was usually believed to be socialist. Orwell did not distinguish between fascism and Soviet communism, or Stalinism as it was also called.”3

As Orwell was at odds with the British press, but his essay writing was essentially free to become more and more Polemic, especially as his strong Anti-Fascist beliefs would increasingly clash with advocates of pacifism during the build up to the Second World War. Despite this climate and his re-occurring illnesses over the next few years Orwell began contributing to more publications, and his stock as a journalist began to rise. However, in 1942 when Orwell wrote Looking Back on the Spanish War, it was obvious that the experiences of that war were still the primary fuel of his indignation.

“Our memories are short nowadays, but look back a bit, dig out the files of New Masses or the Daily Worker, and just have a look at the romantic warmongering muck that our left-wingers were spilling at that time. [...] But here were the very people who for twenty years had hooted and jeered at the ‘glory’ of war, at atrocity stories, at patriotism, even at physical courage, coming out with stuff that with the alteration of a few names would have fitted into the Daily Mail of 1918.”4
When Orwell became the literary editor of Tribune in 1942, it was to create a mutually beneficial relationship between himself and the publication. Orwell’s stock as a political thinker had begun to increase due to his outspoken essays and articles that were selectively published in many left-wing publications and pamphlets. His sharp criticisms of the Stalinist USSR had also finally been vindicated with the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of non-aggression in 1939, which many in the left-wing took to be a fundamental betrayal of socialism. Tribune therefore benefited from Orwell’s reputation as an forthright individual, whereas Orwell now had a regular platform in which to voice his opinions on everything from politics to literature.

“The special relationship between Orwell and Tribune, which lasted roughly from 1943 to 1949, was clearly of profit to both sides. To Tribune, Orwell gave the cachet of his highly individual outlook. Conversely, the pressure of weekly journalism must have drawn from him many penetrating shorter pieces that would have remained unwritten”5

It was in Tribune that Orwell’s best know Journalistic contribution, the column As I Please, was published. In this column, Orwell literally wrote on everything from Politics, to social issues, and from the arts, to fishing, and out of all his journalistic output these columns are also widely hailed as the best examples of his work. Because of Orwell’s approach to the column being along the lines of a broader look at a range of topics coupled with the use of humour as well as politics made for a platform that could be appreciated by all types of reader, which made his social and political commentaries all the more powerful.

“He not only promoted socialist ideas and put contemporary political events in historical perspective but also (gloomy as he was) cheered people up with entertaining subjects and - in an intimate tone of voice - combined public issues with personal feelings”6

In the 2nd of June, 1944 column of As I Please, Orwell starts by breaking down the war propaganda of first the Italians and then the other European combatant nations, as well as the properties of names. When mentioning British propaganda he uses the example of the BBC’s use of the word ‘Insurgent’ rather than ‘Rebel’ to describe Franco’s uprising in Spain eight years prior.

“Thus when the Spanish Civil War broke out the B.B.C. produced the name “Insurgents” for Franco’s followers. This covered the fact that they were rebels while making rebellion sound respectable.”7

Orwell recalls his bitter post-Spain experiences once again, but due to the flow of the war, Dunkirk and the Blitz, propaganda was an everyday encounter that people would have been more aware of. Orwell’s criticisms are then followed up by more general topics that include short stories and Babylonian marriage customs. Even when dealing with the distasteful subject of propaganda (of which Orwell was also guilty of producing) Orwell maintains a light and accessible approach to the subject and throughout his columns he would invite responses and address them in, this is because, according to Richard Keeble:

“… at Tribune he was engaging in the crucial political debate with people who mattered to him. They were an authentic audience compared with what Stuart Allen (2004: 85) calls the ‘implied reader or imagined community of readers’ of the mainstream media.”8

This process of personalised debate with his audience would have been made all the more important to Orwell given that prior to his appointment as Literary Editor of Tribune he was serving a very different role as a talks producer for the BBC’s Eastern Service as well as a contributor to The Observer.

In William Empson and Orwell at the BBC, Empson (a friend and colleague) describes Orwell’s motivations for enlisting with the BBC originally being that he wanted to be a war correspondent but had in fact been told he was too ill to go abroad. He considered propaganda to India to be an important role considering the pacific theatre of war and India’s own independence movement, but as Empson relates, despite performing his role diligently for the war effort, he frequently had to work past his own idealism.

“The experience of being Indian Editor continued to work on him […] But one cannot understand either book [Animal Farm & Nineteen Eighty-Four] without realising that he considered having to write them as a torture to himself; it was horrible to think of the evil men, stinking Tories, that would gain by his telling the truth, let alone jeer about it triumphantly. But tell it he must, he could do no other.”9

Yet even in this environment, Orwell continued to add his own personal spin on the events of the war that he relayed as propaganda to India. In William Empson and Orwell at the BBC, Empson also mentions how Orwell would butt heads with the BBC when they refused to let him cut-off important speakers who may do more harm than good in his opinion. He would also use the Spanish Civil War as a point of comparison in the war against Hitler and Mussolini.

“This is not the only heroic fight against Fascist aggression which has happened during the last ten years. The Spanish people fought for two-and-a-half years against their own Quislings and against the German and Italian invaders, actually fought against odds which - relatively speaking - were greater than those facing China.”10

Orwell’s tenure at the BBC is summed up by David Thompson in Such was the Journalism as follows:

“[Orwell’s] very presence in Broadcasting House represented a hitherto unimaginable shift in British politics, an admission that established policy and the common good are not always served by the same means. Someone somewhere had the sense to know Orwell was talking sense, even if that someone didn't necessarily like the sense he talked.”11

Orwell’s ties to The Observer, however were more agreeable and often indulgent of his individual outlook, in a similar manner to Tribune. The Observer’s editor at the time David Astor, originally wanted (the largely unknown) Orwell in his team to write political leads and essays for the paper, but in an interview with the BBC in 1984 remarked that Orwell was “more interested in writing think articles of a wide kind […] He was more a political thinker who wrote in newspapers occasionally”12
It was at The Observer that Orwell was finally allowed to try his hand as a war reporter in Paris and Cologne. According to Astor, the editorial staff fully supported Orwell as he was representative of the shift in the fundamental dynamics of the paper - Astor was moving it more to the left and had assembled a team of outspoken thinkers onto the staff - and Orwell was a good fit. It is worth noting that a lot of Orwell’s Journalistic output for the publications he was associated with - including Tribune and The Observer, where he had his best exposure as a journalist - was in the form of literary reviews. Which in a sense complemented his own ongoing literary ambitions, and led to his position as the Literary Editor at Tribune. During his tenure at The Observer, Orwell would also contribute regular reviews to the paper, as well as to Tribune, the Evening Standard, and the Manchester Evening News. It was The Observer though, that provided Orwell his most ‘well-rounded’ journalistic experience rather than merely trading off his controversy as Tribune and even the BBC had done.

“He wanted to go to Germany with the first troops that went in because he was aware that, although he’d written a lot about dictatorships, he’d never been in a country that was under a dictatorship. […] He’d never done any reporting and he asked me to back his request to go as a war correspondent, but in fact the news editor was delighted to send him.”13

Orwell contributed thirteen articles to The Observer from France and Germany on a variety of subjects; from the state of the Parisian newspapers to the situation of the people of Germany and after his brief role as a reporter, as his health deteriorated over the final years of his life, he would still continue to contribute to the paper.

From Orwell’s earliest journalistic work before and immediately after Spain, his output was mainly in the form of his essay writing and reviews. But as the political climate shifted in his favour during the early war years, Orwell would find his stock and world view, controversial as it was at times, more favourable to the media community. Even in the constraints of his BBC office for two years, Orwell managed to slip his views and his agenda into the BBC’s own propaganda broadcasts. Although Orwell would find an acceptance of his political thought and his skills as a journalist in The Observer, and an involved audience through Tribune - with both publications serving as a platform to put his name into the public consciousness on a regular basis - he would still hold his journalistic output in a lower regard than his fiction. The 1946 essay Why I Write is the best example of Orwell’s own motives, in it he states:

“What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art [...]When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art’ [...] But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience.”14

It is clear here that Orwell considered himself a political writer first and a journalist second, which concurs with David Astor’s assessment of him. With this in mind it’s clear to see that Orwell was able to tailor himself to his journalistic roles as a columnist, reviewer, editor, essayist, and reporter by fitting in with publications that were interested in him first and would tolerate and allow the expression of his political self through his contributions.
Orwell’s dissenting views manifested in and co-existed with his journalistic roles primarily because they were encouraged in most cases. Even at the BBC - despite his discomfort with the propaganda machine - it was evident that his views were tolerated, even if they were sometimes censored or cut because of time constraints; and in the case of Tribune and The Observer, the publications benefited from them as they went through their own transitional periods towards re-establishing themselves. But Orwell also used his multiple roles to help spread his agenda out amongst pedestrian journalism and think pieces across the publications he was involved with, which served to not over-saturate readers and keep the impact of the pieces while keeping them accessible.


1 Orwell, G. Spilling the Spanish Beans. New English Weekly (July & September 1937). Reprinted on George Orwell Links (1995-2009) Canada:  

2 Thompson, D. Such Was the Journalism: The Overlooked Non-fiction of George Orwell. Biblio (May 1998): p34(1).

3 Storgaard, C. B. George Orwell - Socialist, Anarchist, or what…? On George Orwell’s Continued Political Development (

4 Orwell, G. Looking Back on the Spanish War (1942) George Orwell Links (1995-2009) Canada:

5 Fyvel, T. R. Orwell at Tribune from The World of George Orwell. (1971) London, Whitefield & Nicholson. Reprinted in Coppard & Crick. Orwell Remembered. (1984) London, Ariel Books. p 212.

6 Meyers, J. Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation (2000) New York/London: W. W. Norton & Co. Quoted in Keeble, R. The Lasting in the Ephemeral. The Journalistic Imagination. (2007) New York/London: Routledge.

7 Orwell, G. As I Please. Tribune (2nd of June 1944)
8 Keeble, R. The Lasting in the Ephemeral. The Journalistic Imagination. (2007) New York/London: Routledge. p 106.

9 from The World of George Orwell. (1971) London, Whitefield & Nicholson. Reprinted in Coppard & Crick. Orwell Remembered. (1984) London, Ariel Books. p 183.

10 Orwell, G. Extract from BBC Weekly News Review for India, 22. 16th of May 1942. From Orwell in Spain (2001) London: Penguin Books. p 342.

11 Such Was the Journalism: The Overlooked Non-fiction of George Orwell by David Thompson Biblio (May 1998): p34(1).

12 Originally for the 1984 BBC Arena programme Orwell Remembered. Reprinted in Coppard & Crick. Orwell Remembered. (1984) London, Ariel Books. p 183.

13 Originally for the 1984 BBC Arena programme Orwell Remembered. Reprinted in Coppard & Crick. Orwell Remembered. (1984) London, Ariel Books. p 186-7.
14 Orwell, G. Why I Write. (2004) Great Ideas Edition. London: Penguin Classics. p 8.


Keeble & Wheeler. The Journalistic Imagination. (2007) New York/London: Routledge.

Orwell, G. Why I Write. (2004) Great Ideas Edition. London: Penguin Classics.

George Orwell Links (1995-2009) Canada:

George Orwell Eric Arthur Blair (2009) Canada:

Thompson, D. Such Was the Journalism: The Overlooked Non-fiction of George Orwell Biblio (May 1998): p34(1). (

Coppard, A & Crick, B. Orwell Remembered (1984) London: Ariel & BBC.

Orwell, G & Davison, P (Ed). Orwell in Spain (2001) London: Penguin Books.

Storgaard, C. B. George Orwell - Socialist, Anarchist, or what…? On George Orwell’s Continued Political Development


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