Tuesday, 24 August 2010
Enemies and liars
OK, OK, I’m becoming a bore about Orwell, I know I am, but this’ll be the last reference to him (at least for a little while).
The great man says two things in the course of Homage to Catalonia that have lodged in my brain and have triggered some contemporary thoughts.
The first was his claim that he harboured no romantic image of the working man, unlike some liberals; but when it came to a clash between the worker and ‘his natural enemy’ the policeman, he Orwell knew which side he was on. The second attention-snagging claim he made was that most journalists ‘lie for a living’.
Let’s take the first one, that the police are the ‘natural enemy’ of the worker. Brendan Behan said that there was no situation so bad, the arrival of a policeman couldn’t make it worse. That’s generally true if the people involved are poor/working-class. The police are the muscular arm of the state; they exist to make sure that the laws of the land are enforced – or at least, that they’re enforced among the less-well-off. If you doubt me, think how many cases you’ve read which involve the arrest and prosecution of a working-class/poor person for theft. How much was involved? What penalty was handed down? Now think of how many occasions you’ve heard of the arrest and prosecution of people for white-collar theft…Not quite so many, eh? Just like the penalty handed down to such people is frequently less draconian. And maybe sometime do a survey of how many working-class people are in our jails and how many middle-class…You probably see that Orwell’s point still thuds home with telling veracity.
And the second one – that most journalists lie for a living. Orwell was talking about eighty years ago, of course, so that can have no relevance to journalists today, can it? … Well, that depends on what you call a lie. If you take a lie to be the flat statement of something that’s not true, well, most journalists tend to be careful about that sort of thing. Though mind you, if you consider the Troubles, the number of times journalists regurgitated as fact a self-serving, lying report from the British Army or the British government, you'd end up with a tidy total of down-right full-frontal lies. But generally with journalists, lying today involves the way they describe or treat events and issues: always it’s as though the status quo is the only possible option. Over the last twenty-five years, for instance, I can’t remember reading a single mainstream journalist who argued the case for a socialist state. Virtually all of them bought into the Thatcherite/Blairite premise that the market, with some light controlling, was what made the mare go. Any more state-controlled approach was bad for business and bad for decent citizens like their readers. Now I’ll give the acquiescing journalists credit for knowing that the market-is-king was only one way of looking at society, and a pretty seriously-flawed way at that. But I won’t give them credit for opening their little beaks and telling their readers that there were other, better ways and that we should press really really hard for them, if we hope to ever bring some semblance of equality to our society. I won’t give them credit for doing that because they didn’t open. In short, they lied by omission, which for people who like to present themselves as the guardians of democracy is a fairly serious failure.
The same of course goes for their presentation of the Troubles. The overwhelming number presented the conflict as some bad psychopaths who were intent on killing people versus the governments who were trying to protect us from them. Anyone with the feeblest grasp of history knows that’s bunkum but it didn’t prevent our heroic hacks from dishing it out for decades.
Funny, isn’t it, how what was true nearly a century ago is true today. That Orwell was some boy.