George Orwell (English 246: Fall 2011)

Orwell and England Presentation Reflection – Orwell and the BBC

November 15, 2011 · Leave a Comment

For my section of the presentation, I focused on Orwell’s time as a propagandist at the BBC and how that experienced influenced his writing. At the outbreak of WWII, Orwell submitted his name to the Central Register in an attempt to join the war effort but was declared “unfit for any kind of military service” by the Medical Board in 1940. Despite the setback, he was determined to find a way to help the cause, which led him to soon afterwards join the Home Guard, a defense organization of the British army that was made up of volunteers who were otherwise unfit for military service. The Home Guard was made up of over 1.5 million volunteers, and though they were still considered civilians, they played an active part of the war effort, handling weapons and serving as additional aid to the British Army. During this time, Orwell continued to write, particularly focusing on reviews of books and plays. He also took part in a few radio broadcasts for the Eastern Service of the BBC. For one of these broadcasts, he wrote a script based upon The Lion and the Unicorn, which was to be broadcasted to German workers.

Orwell finally obtained “war work” in August of 1941 when the BBC’s Eastern Service took him on as a full time employee. He was initially employed as a talks assistant, in the Indian section of the Eastern Service with the task of supervising cultural broadcasts to India to counter propaganda from Nazi Germany designed to undermine imperial links. These cultural broadcasts were actually propaganda that was aimed primarily at Indian students to retain them within the Empire and defend imperial rule. Although Orwell was against promoting the British Empire (and had been since his experiences in Burma), his commitment to anti-fascism allowed him to compromise his principle since he believed that WWII was morally necessary. He even justified himself by presenting the view that Fascist rule was much worse than anything British Imperialism had achieved.

Soon, the BBC began to shift their focus from cultural broadcasts to news broadcasts targeted to India, many of which Orwell scripted. These broadcasts illustrated clearly the propagandist work that Orwell did during his time at the BBC. When compared to entries in his war diary, it was clear that there was a stark contrast between Orwell’s own perception of reality and the message that he was sending out the listeners. As a propagandist, it was his job to take an event that the British were involved in, regardless of the result, and reframe the event to draw a positive view of the British war effort. As his time at the BBC drew to a close, Orwell received criticism for the contradictions of the views he presents at the BBC versus the personal opinions that he expressed. However, he defended himself by saying that while he was being used by the governing classes, the defeat of Nazism had to take priority over the socialist revolution.

A lot of critics and researchers examining Orwell’s time at the BBC often raise the question of how relevant his experiences as a propagandist actually were in his subsequent works. It is common knowledge that all of his novels drew upon his experiences and often reused those experiences multiple times throughout his works. In fact, he had already been contemplating Animal Farm in 1941, as well as some of the themes that became a part of Nineteen Eighty-Four. However, his time at the BBC proved fruitful in providing additional material that became useful to his later writings. Animal Farm is an example of this influence.

In late 1943, Orwell began working on the novel Animal Farm, a satire that was aimed at the Soviet Union, which was a major anti-fascist ally of Britain at this time. This was a risky decision since the outcome of the war was still uncertain and a British publication of a critique of the Soviet Union could cause tension between the allies, jeopardizing the war. However, Orwell had always viewed the country with great concern since his experiences in the Spanish Civil War and wanted to publish the novel on political grounds with the intention of destroying what he believed was the Soviet myth that Russia was a socialist country. The novel also served to attack English intellectuals who Orwell believed absorbed all the Russian propaganda that had been introduced to the country since 1941. Although he realized the implications of publishing his book and the difficulty he would face in finding a publisher, Orwell eventually did manage to have the book published, and in many ways considered it to be a work of atonement for having to go against his own beliefs in order to write propaganda at the BBC.

The irony of the book was that it was meant to be a work of propaganda that was meant to decry Soviet propaganda. Its purpose was to show Russian workers that their beliefs about their government were an illusion. Through the successful completion of Animal Farm and the reception that it eventually received, Orwell demonstrated himself as a master propagandist, achieving the difficult feat of fusing political and artistic purpose in a way that both entertained the reader and got his political message across to the masses.

Fleay, C., and M.L. Sanders. “Looking into the Abyss: George Orwell at the BBC.”Journal of Contemporary History 24.3 (1989): 503-18.


Categories: Animal Farm · Orwell and England

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