10 July 2011

News of the World bows out by hacking into George Orwell - and misrepresenting what he said

The final editorial of the final edition of the News of the World began by making out that George Orwell was a fan of the newspaper. In case you missed it, you can read the whole thing, if you can bear its relentless hyperbole and self-congratulation, from a link posted below

July 10, 2011

"IT is Sunday afternoon, preferably before the war. The wife is already asleep in the armchair, and the children have been sent out for a nice long walk. You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose and open the News of the World."

These are the words of the great writer George Orwell. They were written in 1946 but
they have been the sentiments of most of the nation for well over a century and a half as this astonishing paper became part of the fabric of Britain, as central to Sunday as a roast dinner [my emphasis in red].
  • 'the sentiments of most of the nation for well over a century and a half '?
  • 'part of the fabric of Britain' ??
  • 'as central to Sunday as a roast dinner'???
Er - no, no and no!

I haven't ever seen - and can't think of - a single shred of evidence that would support any of these bizarre boasts - and you certainly won't find any if you read the rest of the editorial (HERE).

More intriguingly, the reference to Sunday roast dinner looks as though it was lifted from what Orwell said in the very next sentence after the one they quoted:

'... and open the News of the World. Roast beef and Yorkshire, or roast pork and apple sauce, followed up by suet pudding and driven home, as it were, by a cup of mahogany-brown tea, have put you in just the right mood...'

Was Orwell really a fan of the News of the World?
Even more intriguingly (or should that be 'even more typically/predictably'?), the editorial gives the impression that Orwell was a fan who was recommending the News of the World - and conveniently omits any reference to why he was planning to open the said newspaper:

'In these blissful circumstances, what is it that you want to read about? Naturally, about a murder...'

Nor, unsurprisingly, is there any mention of the fact that Orwell's interest was in murders that '... have been re-hashed over and over again by the Sunday papers...'

When I read the whole article by Orwell (see below), I was staggered at how appropriate it was that the News of the World's final editorial was such a fine example of the newspaper quoting someone so selectively, self-servingly and, fundamentally, misleadingly.

On this evidence, and as we'd have said when I was too young to be allowed to read the News of the World, it looks like a case of 'good riddance to bad rubbish.'

Yet, according to the surprising number of supposedly serious journalists who have devoted so much energy on Twitter bemoaning its passing, it seems that I may be missing something.

The article by George Orwell quoted in today's News of the World (from HERE)
'IT IS Sunday afternoon, preferably before the war. The wife is already asleep in the armchair, and the children have been sent out for a nice long walk. You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose, and open the News of the World. Roast beef and Yorkshire, or roast pork and apple sauce, followed up by suet pudding and driven home, as it were, by a cup of mahogany-brown tea, have put you in just the right mood. Your pipe is drawing sweetly, the sofa cushions are soft underneath you, the fire is well alight, the air is warm and stagnant. In these blissful circumstances, what is it that you want to read about?

'Naturally, about a murder. But what kind of murder? If one examines the murders which have given the greatest amount of pleasure to the British public, the murders whose story is known in its general outline to almost everyone and which have been made into novels and re-hashed over and over again by the Sunday papers, one finds a fairly strong family resemblance running through the greater number of them. Our great period in murder, our Elizabethan period, so to speak, seems to have been between roughly 1850 and 1925, and the murderers whose reputation has stood the test of time are the following: Dr. Palmer of Rugely, Jack the Ripper, Neill Cream, Mrs. Maybrick, Dr. Crippen, Seddon, Joseph Smith, Armstrong, and Bywaters and Thompson. In addition, in 1919 or thereabouts, there was another very celebrated case which fits into the general pattern but which I had better not mention by name, because the accused man was acquitted.

'Of the above-mentioned nine cases, at least four have had successful novels based on them, one has been made into a popular melodrama, and the amount of literature surrounding them, in the form of newspaper write-ups, criminological treatises and reminiscences by lawyers and police officers, would make a considerable library. It is difficult to believe that any recent English crime will be remembered so long and so intimately, and not only because the violence of external events has made murder seem unimportant, but because the prevalent type of crime seems to be changing. The principal cause célèbre of the war years was the so-called Cleft Chin Murder, which has now been written up in a popular booklet; the verbatim account of the trial was published some time last year by Messrs. Jarrolds with an introduction by Mr. Bechhofer Roberts. Before returning to this pitiful and sordid case, which is only interesting from a sociological and perhaps a legal point of view, let me try to define what it is that the readers of Sunday papers mean when they say fretfully that “you never seem to get a good murder nowadays”.

'In considering the nine murders I named above, one can start by excluding the Jack the Ripper case, which is in a class by itself. Of the other eight, six were poisoning cases, and eight of the ten criminals belonged to the middle class. In one way or another, sex was a powerful motive in all but two cases, and in at least four cases respectability—the desire to gain a secure position in life, or not to forfeit one’s social position by some scandal such as a divorce—was one of the main reasons for committing murder. In more than half the cases, the object was to get hold of a certain known sum of money such as a legacy or an insurance policy, but the amount involved was nearly always small. In most of the cases the crime only came to light slowly, as the result of careful investigations which started off with the suspicions of neighbours or relatives; and in nearly every case there was some dramatic coincidence, in which the finger of Providence could be clearly seen, or one of those episodes that no novelist would dare to make up, such as Crippen’s flight across the Atlantic with his mistress dressed as a boy, or Joseph Smith playing “Nearer, my God, to Thee” on the harmonium while one of his wives was drowning in the next room. The background of all these crimes, except Neill Cream’s, was essentially domestic; of twelve victims, seven were either wife or husband of the murderer.

'With all this in mind one can construct what would be, from a News of the World reader’s point of view, the “perfect” murder. The murderer should be a little man of the professional class—a dentist or a solicitor, say—living an intensely respectable life somewhere in the suburbs, and preferably in a semi-detached house, which will allow the neighbours to hear suspicious sounds through the wall. He should be either chairman of the local Conservative Party branch, or a leading Nonconformist and strong Temperance advocate. He should go astray through cherishing a guilty passion for his secretary or the wife of a rival professional man, and should only bring himself to the point of murder after long and terrible wrestles with his conscience. Having decided on murder, he should plan it all with the utmost cunning, and only slip up over some tiny unforeseeable detail. The means chosen should, of course, be poison. In the last analysis he should commit murder because this seems to him less disgraceful, and less damaging to his career, than being detected in adultery. With this kind of background, a crime can have dramatic and even tragic qualities which make it memorable and excite pity for both victim and murderer. Most of the crimes mentioned above have a touch of this atmosphere, and in three cases, including the one I referred to but did not name, the story approximates to the one I have outlined.

'Now compare the Cleft Chin Murder. There is no depth of feeling in it. It was almost chance that the two people concerned committed that particular murder, and it was only by good luck that they did not commit several others. The background was not domesticity, but the anonymous life of the dance-halls and the false values of the American film. The two culprits were an eighteen-year-old ex-waitress named Elizabeth Jones, and an American army deserter, posing as an officer, named Karl Hulten. They were only together for six days, and it seems doubtful whether, until they were arrested, they even learned one another’s true names. They met casually in a teashop, and that night went out for a ride in a stolen army truck. Jones described herself as a strip-tease artist, which was not strictly true (she had given one unsuccessful performance in this line); and declared that she wanted to do something dangerous, “like being a gun-moll.” Hulten described himself as a big-time Chicago gangster, which was also untrue. They met a girl bicycling along the road, and to show how tough he was Hulten ran over her with his truck, after which the pair robbed her of the few shillings that were on her. On another occasion they knocked out a girl to whom they had offered a lift, took her coat and handbag and threw her into a river. Finally, in the most wanton way, they murdered a taxi-driver who happened to have £8 in his pocket. Soon afterwards they parted. Hulten was caught because he had foolishly kept the dead man’s car, and Jones made spontaneous confessions to the police. In court each prisoner incriminated the other. In between crimes, both of them seem to have behaved with the utmost callousness: they spent the dead taxi-driver’s £8 at the dog races.

'Judging from her letters, the girl’s case has a certain amount of psychological interest, but this murder probably captured the headlines because it provided distraction amid the doodle-bugs and the anxieties of the Battle of France. Jones and Hulten committed their murder to the tune of V1, and were convicted to the tune of V2. There was also considerable excitement because—as has become usual in England—the man was sentenced to death and the girl to imprisonment. According to Mr. Raymond, the reprieving of Jones caused widespread indignation and streams of telegrams to the Home Secretary: in her native town, “She should hang” was chalked on the walls beside pictures of a figure dangling from a gallows. Considering that only ten women have been hanged in Britain this century, and that the practice has gone out largely because of popular feeling against it, it is difficult not to feel that this clamour to hang an eighteen-year-old girl was due partly to the brutalizing effects of war. Indeed, the whole meaningless story, with its atmosphere of dance-halls, movie-palaces, cheap perfume, false names and stolen cars, belongs essentially to a war period.

'Perhaps it is significant that the most talked-of English murder of recent years should have been committed by an American and an English girl who had become partly Americanized. But it is difficult to believe that this case will be so long remembered as the old domestic poisoning dramas, product of a stable society where the all-prevailing hypocrisy did at least ensure that crimes as serious as murder should have strong emotions behind them.'

Other Phone-hacking related posts:


John said...

Someone should start a blog about the misuse of Orwell. My favourite recent example was Johann Hari's pals using him in their defence of doctoring interviews. That's chutzpah.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree less, Max.

Orwell was simply observing that the quintessential English murder had more or less standard ingredients. The ingredients told us much about the English and their sexual and social preoccupations. (For what it's worth, I think Orwell's point still holds good, or at least mostly so.)

The News of the World is mentioned as the best known and most effective chronicler of these suburban, middle class killings.

You seem to be assuming that Orwell was damning the News of the World, presumably because the essay concerns an unpalatable subject and its prominence in a Sunday tabloid. That, I think, is to miss the point completely.

The News of the World is right - and you're wrong.

Max Atkinson said...

Hmmm, Anonymous. Thanks for your comment, but I don't think I was assuming that Orwell was damning the News of the World. My main objection was the highly selective, self-serving and misleading way in which the quotation was used to make out that he was a fan who endorsed the 'astonishing paper' that had become 'part of the fabric of Britain, as central to Sunday as a roast dinner.' You and they may believe that of News of the World', but I do not.

Nor was I impressed by the exaggerated hyperbole and self-congratulatory waffle that made up most of the rest of the editorial - except in so far as it did, I suppose, accurately reflect kind of journalism that was their stock in trade. In fact, when I think about it, maybe we both agree that the News of the World was indeed an 'astonishing paper' - if only because 'astonishing' is a word that can mean 'amazing' in a positive or a negative sense...

Anonymous said...

Thank you Max. But I maintain that whatever else the News of the World said about itself it did not claim George Orwell as a "fan". Without an explicit recruitment of Orwell as an approving NoW reader your attack is empty.

I should be clear that I haven't read the NoW's editorial in full - and have no particular wish to. I can't believe, though, that you would have failed to quote such a claim had it been made.

I imagine we'd agree that the NoW WAS claiming to be a fixture of British life. I think that's true and what was behind Orwell's reference.

Whether one liked or loathed the rag, the NoW was enormously popular. That's all the Orwell quote reflected.

As for a newspaper (tabloid or quality) engaging in vainglorious boasting, I'm shocked...

Robert said...

At the same time the door opens and in walks my best friend Sherlock Homes . Hold was he real?.

James said...

Whether or not the NoW explicitly stated that Orwell was a fan, the use of his quote implies his endorsement. This is how the tabloid press works, by implying things without explicitly stating them; this way they can say that they were not lying and any implication is drawn by the reader alone.
So, in linking themselves with one of the greatest British writers ever, they have attempted to hijack his reputation and use it for their own ends. As Mr Atkinson says, this is misleading and self-serving, and in keeping with the standard of writing in the paper.

Anonymous said...

James, the use of the quote does not imply Orwell's endorsement. It expresses his recognition of the newspaper as a longstanding feature of British life. No more, no less.

I didn't buy or approve of the News of the World (I read the Observer and the Sunday Telegraph)and there are plenty of charges to make against it. But I do think that Max's was a badly aimed attack.

James said...

Disagree if you wish, but it remains that there is an implied endorsement. You might not think so, but there it is. It is a basic rhetorical device to place a quote from an individual alongside an opinion. The effect is to make one seem dependent on the other; in this case, NotW's status as a pillar of Britain is (apparently) verified by Orwell's quote. This is inherently misleading.

Max Atkinson said...

Thanks to everyone who's joined in (so far).

If all the NOTW had been claiming was that it was "a fixture of British life" - or, in a later comment from Anonymous "a feature of British life" - and/or that Orwell agreed with that, I would indeed have no problem in agreeing with Anonymous.

But the NOTW went rather further by saying "this astonishing paper became part of the fabric of Britain, as central to Sunday as a roast dinner..." My understanding of our language is that there's a world of difference between the words 'fabric', 'fixture' and 'feature' in this context. Pedant though I may be, I'd have had no problem had they used 'fixture' or 'feature' (as apparently preferred by Anonymous) instead of 'fabric'.

Whatever the merits or defects of what I wrote, it attracted far more attention than I'd expected. Visits to the blog rose to 6x the daily average. And that was before he BBC Website picked up on it (http://bbc.in/n0ULDu). Meanwhile, it also prompted another TV company to approach me for an interview about the phone-hacking scandal more generally.

All of which may sound very encouraging - except for the fact that I'd prefer it if some of the more regular themes on my blog attracted as much attention as a slight diversion like this.

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