Since the NSA and PRISM scandals broke, sales of George Orwell’s 1984 have been soaring. The story of an all-seeing, all-knowing state is suddenly relevant again. Yet long before Orwell focused his literary imagination on official propaganda, he attacked the deceptions of mainstream and partisan media as precursors to tyranny.
It was in Spain, writing about (and fighting in) the Spanish Civil War, that Orwell fully understood the depths to which the media could descend. In his 1942 essay, “Looking Back on the Spanish War,” Orwell wrote:
I remember saying once to Arthur Koestler, ‘History stopped in 1936’, at which he nodded in immediate understanding. We were both thinking of totalitarianism in general, but more particularly of the Spanish civil war. Early in life I have noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper, but in Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie. I saw great battles reported where there had been no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed. I saw troops who had fought bravely denounced as cowards and traitors, and others who had never seen a shot fired hailed as the heroes of imaginary victories; and I saw newspapers in London retailing these lies and eager intellectuals building emotional superstructures over events that had never happened. I saw, in fact, history being written not in terms of what happened but of what ought to have happened according to various ‘party lines’.
The reference to Koestler is important: Koestler’s own novel of totalitarianism, Darkness at Noon, which was aimed explicitly at Soviet communism, inspired Orwell’s thinking about the future of the socialist state.
Note that Orwell was not attacking the mainstream media alone, but also partisan media in particular. He saw the dissolution of any notion of objective truth as a prelude to the state’s ability to manipulate truth.
So while he was skeptical of the mainstream media’s claim to objectivity, Orwell was also worried about the loss of truth and objectivity themselves as ideals to which even aggressive partisan media outlets could aspire.
Orwell’s warning is particularly relevant to conservative new media as we challenge the dominance of a state-friendly mainstream media, which is eager to rewrite history and reinforce the Democratic Party line.
In exposing the mainstream media’s false pretensions at objectivity, we should continue to prize accuracy.