As I Please
Tribune, 21 April 1944
In a letter published in this week’s Tribune,
someone attacks me rather violently for saying that the B.B.C. is a better
source of news than the daily papers, and is so regarded by the public. I
have never, he suggests, heard ordinary working men shouting ‘Turn that
dope off! ‘ when the news bulletin comes on.
On the contrary, I have heard this frequently. Still more frequently I have seen the customers in a pub go straight on with their darts, music and so forth without the slightest slackening of noise when the news bulletin began. But it was not my claim that anyone likes the B.B.C., or thinks it interesting, or grown-up, or democratic, or progressive. I said only that people regard it as a relatively sound source of news. Again and again I have known people, when they see some doubtful item of news, wait to have it confirmed by the radio before they believe it. Social surveys show the same thing – i.e. that as against the radio the prestige of newspapers has declined.
And I repeat what I said before – that in my experience the B.B.C. is relatively truthful and, above all, has a responsible attitude towards news and does not disseminate lies simply because they are ‘newsy’. Of course, untrue statements are constantly being broadcast and anyone can tell you of instances. But in most cases this is due to genuine error, and the B.B.C. sins much more by simply avoiding anything controversial than by direct propaganda. And after all – a point not met by our correspondent – its reputation abroad is comparatively high. Ask any refugee from Europe which of the belligerent radios is considered to be the most truthful. So also in Asia. Even in India, where the population are so hostile that they will not listen to British propaganda and will hardly listen to a British entertainment programme, they listen to B.B.C. news because they believe that it approximates to the truth.
Even if the B.B.C. passes on the British official lies, it does make some effort to sift the others. Most of the newspapers, for instance, have continued to publish without any query as to their truthfulness the American claims to have sunk the entire Japanese fleet several times over. The B.B.C., to my knowledge, developed quite early on an attitude of suspicion towards this and certain other unreliable sources. On more than one occasion I have known a newspaper to print a piece of news – and news unfavourable to Britain – on no other authority than the German radio, because it was ‘newsy’ and made a good ‘para’.
If you see something obviously untruthful in a newspaper and ring up to ask ‘Where did you get that from?’ you are usually put off with the formula: ‘I’m afraid Mr So-and-So is not in the office.’ If you persist, you generally find that the story has no basis whatever but that it looked like a good bit of news, so in it went. Except where libel is involved, the average journalist is astonished and even contemptuous if anyone bothers about accuracy with regard to names, dates, figures and other details. And any daily journalist will tell you that one of the most important secrets of his trade is the trick of making it appear that there is news when there is no news.
Towards the end of May 1940, newspaper posters were
prohibited in order to save paper. Several newspapers, however, continued to
display posters for some time afterwards. On inquiry it was found that they
were using old ones. Such headlines as ‘Panzer Divisions Hurled Back’ or
‘French Army Standing Firm’ could be used over and over again. Then came
the period when the paper-sellers supplied their own posters with a slate
and a bit of chalk, and in their hands the poster became a comparatively
sober and truthful thing. It referred to something that was actually in the
paper you were going to buy, and it usually picked out the real news and not
some piece of sensational nonsense. The paper-sellers, who frequently did
not know which way round a capital S goes, had a better idea of what is news,
and more sense of responsibility towards the public, than their millionaire
One mystery about the English language is why, with
the biggest vocabulary in existence, it has to be constantly borrowing
foreign words and phrases. Where is the sense, for instance, of saying cul
de sac when you mean blind alley? Other totally unnecessary French
phrases are joie de vivre, amour propre, reculer pour mieux sauter,
raison d’etre, vis-a-vis, tete-a-tete, au pied de la lettre, esprit de
corps. There are dozens more of them. Other needless borrowings come
from Latin (though there is a case for ‘i.e.’ and ‘e.g.’, which are
useful abbreviations), and since the war we have been much infested by
German words, Gleichschaltung, Lebensraum, Weltanschauung, Wehrmacht,
Panzerdivisionen and others being flung about with great freedom. In
nearly every case an English equivalent already exists or could easily be
improvised. There is also a tendency to take over American slang phrases
without understanding their meaning. For example, the expression ‘barking
up the wrong tree’ is fairly widely used, but inquiry shows that most
people don’t know its origin nor exactly what it means.
The Estate of Eric Blair
Reproduced here under educational Fair Use law