I think it was Oliver Kamm who said that whenever someone asks ‘What would Orwell say?’ their unspoken answer is: ‘He would have agreed with me.’
So the recently announced longlist for the Orwell Prize 2010 was bound to provoke this kind of talk. Some of Stephen Mitchelmore‘s grousing about the list is understandable. Does Iain Dale really turn political writing into an art? Does Peter Hitchens? I think not.
But this is Mitchelmore’s main complaint: that ‘[the prize] has shortlisted books by Nick Cohen (twice!), Andrew Marr and (Tony Blair’s press secretary) Alastair Campbell, each to varying degrees responsible for selling to the British public the solidity of Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Distruction and respect to the murderous invasion of Iraq.’
In fact Cohen never pressed WMD as a case for the 2003 war but let’s gloss over that. Who are Mitchelmore’s alternative Orwell heirs? ‘Richard Seymour’s Lenin’s Tomb superbly written and often revelatory blog posts have yet to be recognised. His book was ignored too.’ Well, Seymour is capable of writing good stuff. Yet Orwell said that prose should have the clarity of a windowpane, and I don’t think Lenny’s greatest admirer could claim that he provides that.
‘It’s a staggering truth also that John Pilger has not been nominated for the journalism prize.’ In fact it is a fairly reasonable truth to accept, given that Pilger now appears to rely on holocaust deniers for source material. And there’s this: ‘As for the book prize, the work from 2009 most overtly inspired by Orwell is surely Newspeak in the 21st Century by Davids Edward and Cromwell’. In fact, were Orwell writing today I suspect he would be on the receiving end of boring and repetitive email traffic from his self-appointed successors.
For all Orwell identified as rotten in political writing – for resistance to truths that do not fit its preconceptions, for language that seems designed to narrow the range of human thought, for the desire ‘to distort or suppress the facts, simply because any honest statement will contain revelations that can be made use of by unscrupulous opponents’ – you cannot beat the Medialens crew.
Mitchelmore ignores Orwell’s rejection of absolute pacifism. His willingness to argue points that might not go down well socially. He ignores the Orwell who wrote, in The Road to Wigan Pier, that ‘If only the sandals and the pistachio-coloured shirts could be put in a pile and burnt, and every vegetarian, teetotaler, and creeping Jesus sent home to Welwyn Garden City to do his yoga exercises quietly!’
That first line is from ‘Through a Glass, Rosily’ in which Orwell also says this:
Whenever A and B are in opposition to one another, anyone who attacks or criticises A is accused of aiding or abetting B… Therefore, say the supporters of A, shut up and don’t criticise, or at least criticise ‘constructively,’ which in practice always means favourably. And from this it is only a short step to arguing that the suppression and distortion of known facts is the highest duty of a journalist.
Anyway. I think there is some good stuff on the longlist. Laurie Penny and Dave Osler are two of the best leftwing writers working today. And Jack of Kent has done some fantastic stuff on the UK libel laws. Perhaps Stephen just needs to broaden his horizons a little. Or even set up his own award for political writing.
Call it ‘The Mitchelmore Prize for Obfuscation’.