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COVER STORY

Drowning
in filth
Post-truth politics and the age of outrage
By Ian Hislop

A
 
nyone who thinks that “post- No wonder Trump is an admirer of only other opinions, but also facts offered
truth politics” is anything Vladimir Putin, who is an admirer of the by those who disagree with them. When
new needs to be reminded Soviet strongmen whom Orwell satirised confronted by a dissenting voice, people get
that George Orwell was writ- so well. These echoes from the past are very offended and then angry. They do not want
ing about this phenomenon 70 strong in America at present but there are to argue, they want the debate to be shut
years before Donald Trump. plenty of them reverberating through Brit- down. Trump supporters are furious with
Audiences listening to President-Elect ish and European politics as well. Our For- anyone who expresses reservations about
Trump’s extraordinary disregard for any- eign Secretary managed to accuse other Eu- their candidate. Pro-Brexit supporters are
thing resembling objective truth – and his ropean leaders of a “whinge-o-rama” when furious with anyone who expresses doubts
astonishing ability to proclaim the abso- they issued qualified statements of con- about the way the process of leaving the Eu-
lute opposite today of what he said yes- gratulation to the new president-elect, even ropean Union is going.
terday – will be forcibly reminded of the though he himself had previously accused I edit the magazine Private Eye, which
slogans that George Orwell gave to his Trump of being “nuts”. Black is White, Re- I sometimes think Orwell would have dis-
political dictators: Black is White, War main is Leave, a Wall is a Fence, two plus missed as “a tuppeny boys’ fortnightly”,
is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is two equals five: but Brexit means Brexit. and after the recent legal challenge to the
Strength (the last of which turned out to be You may find this reassuring, in that we government about Article 50 being put be-
true in the US election). But any journalist have been here before and survived – or fore parliament, we published the cover re-
trying to work out what the speeches actu- distressing to think that we are regressing produced on page 25.
ally mean, amidst the mad syntax and all to a grimmer Orwellian age. But one of the It was a fairly obvious joke, a variant of
the repetition (“gonna happen, gonna hap- worrying developments attached to these the “wheels coming off” gag. But it led to a
pen”), cannot help but fall back on Orwell’s “post-truth” political figures is the increas- large postbag of complaints, including a let-
contention that “political chaos is connect- ing intolerance in public debate of dissent ter from a man who said he thought the cov-
ed with the decay of language”. And the – or even disagreement – about what objec- er was “repulsive”. He also said he wanted
sight of Trump praising Secretary Clinton tive truth might be. to come around and smash up the office and
for her years of public service in his post- A great deal has been written recently then shove our smug opinions so far up our
election victory speech while the crowd about the influence of social media in help- arses that we choked our guts out.
was still chanting his campaign catchphrase ing people to become trapped in their own There was one from a vicar, too, who told
of “Lock her up” was surely a perfect exam- echo chambers, talking only to those who me that it was time to accept the victory of
t

ple of Doublethink. reinforce their views and dismissing not the majority of the people and to stop
22 | NEW STATESMAN | 2-8 DECEMBER 2016
RALPH STEADMAN

2-8 DECEMBER 2016 | NEW STATESMAN | 23


In a proposed preface to his 1945 novel,
t
complaining. Acceptance was a virtue, about this in an essay called “Freedom of the
he said. I wrote back and told him that this Park”, published in Tribune in December Animal Farm, Orwell wrote: “If liberty
argument was a bit much, coming from a 1945. Five people had been arrested outside means anything at all, it means the right to
church that had begun with a minority of Hyde Park for selling pacifist and anarchist tell people what they do not want to hear.”
12. (Or, on Good Friday, a minority of one.) publications. Orwell was worried that, This is the quotation that will accompany
This has become a trend in those who though they had been allowed to publish the new statue of Orwell that has now been
complain: the magazine should be shouted and sell these periodicals throughout the commissioned by the BBC and which will
down or, better still, closed down. In the entire Second World War, there had been a stand as a sort of rebuke to the corporation
light of this it was interesting to read again shift in public opinion that meant that the whenever it fails to live up to it. The BBC
what Orwell said in his diary long before police felt confident to arrest these people show on which I appear regularly, Have I
internet trolls had been invented: for “obstruction” and no one seemed to Got News for You, has been described simul-
mind this curtailment of freedom of speech taneously in the online comments section
We are all drowning in filth. When
I talk to anyone or read the writings of
except him. He wrote: as “overprivileged, right-wing Tory boys
anyone who has any axe to grind, I feel sneering at the working class ” and “lefty,
that intellectual honesty and balanced The relative freedom which we enjoy metropolitan liberal elite having a Labour
judgement have simply disappeared depends on public opinion. The law is luvvie whinge-fest”. Disturbing numbers
from the face of the earth. Everyone’s no protection. Governments make laws, of complainants feel that making jokes
thought is forensic, everyone is simply but whether they are carried out, and about the new president-elect should not
putting a “case” with deliberate how the police behave, depends on the be allowed, since he has won the election.
suppression of his opponent’s point of general temper in the country. If large
Humour is not meant to be political, assert
view, and, what is more, with complete numbers of people are interested in
the would-be censors – unless it attacks the
insensitiveness to any sufferings except freedom of speech, there will be freedom
of speech, even if the law forbids it; if people who lost the vote: then it is impar-
those of himself and his friends.
public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient tial and neutral. This role for comedy would
This was in 1942, when the arguments minorities will be persecuted, even if have surprised Orwell, who was keen on
were about war and peace, life and death, laws exist to protect them. jokes. He wrote of Charles Dickens:
and there were real fascists and Stalinists
around rather than, say, people who disa- This is certainly true for the press today, A joke worth laughing at always has an
gree with you about the possibility of rec- whose reputation in the past few years idea behind it, and usually a subversive
onciling freedom of movement with access has swung violently between the lows of idea. Dickens is able to go on being
funny because he is in revolt against
to the single European market. phone-hacking and the highs of exposing
authority, and authority is always there
to be laughed at. There is always room
for one more custard pie.
“Authority is always there to be laughed I think there is also room for a custard
at,” Orwell wrote. “There is always pie or two to be thrown against those who
claim to be outsiders, against authority and
room for one more custard pie” “the system”, and use this as a way to take
power. The American billionaire property
developer who is the champion of those dis-
Orwell also made clear, in an essay called MPs’ expenses. In 2011 I remember at one possessed by global capitalism seems a rea-
“As I Please” in Tribune in 1944, that what point a football crowd shouting out the sonable target for a joke. Just like his British
we think of as the new online tendency to name of Ryan Giggs, who had a so-called friend, the ex-public-school boy City trader-
call everyone who disagrees with you a fas- superinjunction in place forbidding any- turned-critic of the Home Counties elite.
cist is nothing new. He wrote then: one to mention that he was cheating on his The emblematic quotation on liberty is
It will be seen that, as used, the word
wife and also forbidding anyone to mention from a preface that was not published un-
“Fascism” is almost entirely meaningless. the fact that he had taken out a superin- til 1972 in the Times Literary Supplement.
In conversation, of course, it is used even junction. He was named on Twitter 75,000 A preface about freedom of speech that
more wildly than in print. I have heard times. It seemed clear that public opinion was censored? It is almost too neatly Or-
it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social had decided that his private life should wellian to be true, and in fact no one seems
Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, be made public. The freedom of the press to know exactly why it did not appear. Suf-
bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee [a Tory was briefly popular. Later the same year it fice to say that it is fascinating to read Or-
group], the 1941 Committee [a left-liberal was revealed that the murdered schoolgirl well complaining that a novel which we all
group], Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked by now assume to be a masterpiece – accurate
homosexuality, Priestley’s broadcasts,
the News of the World, along with those of about the nature of revolution and dictator-
Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and
I do not know what else.
a number of high-profile celebrities, and ship and perfect for teaching to children in
the public decided that actually journal- schools – was once considered to be unac-
When Orwell writes like this about the ists were all scumbags and the government ceptably, offensively satirical.
level of public debate, one is unsure whether should get Lord Leveson to sort them out. The target of the satire was deemed to be
to feel relieved at the sense of déjà vu or wor- Those who maintained that the problem our wartime allies the Russians. It is diffi-
ried about the possibility of history repeat- was that the existing laws (on trespass, con- cult to imagine a time, pre-Putin, pre-Cold
ing itself, not as farce, but as tragedy again. tempt, etc) were not enforced because of War, when they were not seen as the en-
The mood and tone of public opinion an unhealthy relationship between the po- emy. But of course the Trump presidency
is an important force in the way our soci- lice, the press and the politicians were not may change all that. Oceania may not be
ety and our media function. Orwell wrote given much credence. at war with Eurasia any more. Or it may
24 | NEW STATESMAN | 2-8 DECEMBER 2016
more often than not will be “No”.
In that case the current orthodoxy
happens to be challenged, and so the
principle of free speech lapses.

One can test oneself by substituting con-


temporary names for Stalin and seeing
how you feel. Putin? Assange? Mandela?
Obama? Snowden? Hillary Clinton? An-
gela Merkel? Prince Harry? Mother Teresa?
Camila Batmanghelidjh? The Pope? David
Bowie? Martin Luther King? The Queen?
Orwell was always confident that the
populist response would be in favour of
everyone being allowed their own views.
That might be different now. If you were
to substitute the name “Trump” or “Far-
age” and ask the question, you might not
get such a liberal response. You might get a
version of: “Get over it! Suck it up! You lost
the vote! What bit of ‘democracy’ do you
not understand?”
Orwell quotes from Voltaire (the attribu-
tion is now contested): “I detest what you
say; I will defend to the death your right
to say it.” Most of us would agree with the
sentiment, but there is a worrying trend in
universities that is filtering through into
the media and the rest of society. Wanting
a “safe space” in which you do not have to
hear views that might upset you and de-
manding trigger warnings about works of
art that might display attitudes which you
find offensive are both part of an attempt
to redefine as complex and negotiable what
Orwell thought was simple and non-nego-
tiable. And this creates problems.
We ran a guide in Private Eye as to what
a formal debate in future universities might
look like.
The proposer puts forward a
motion to the House.
The opposer agrees with the
proposer’s motion.
always have been at war with Eastasia. It is Orwell himself managed to come round The proposer wholeheartedly
difficult to guess, but in those days the pre- to a position of accepting that an author agrees that the opposer was right to
vailing opinion was that it was “not done” could write well and truthfully about a support the motion.
to be rude about the Russians. subject even if one disapproved of the au- The opposer agrees that the proposer
Interestingly there is now a significant thor’s politics: both Kipling and Swift were couldn’t be more right about agreeing
faction on the British left, allied with the allowed to be right even though they were that they were both right to support
the motion.
current leader of the Labour Party, who not left enough. So I am hoping that we can
When the debate is opened up to the
share this view. allow Orwell to be right about the princi- floor, the audience puts it to the proposer
ples of freedom of expression. and the opposer that it isn’t really a


he right to tell people what they In the unpublished preface to Animal debate if everyone is just agreeing with
do not want to hear is still the Farm he writes: each other.
basis of freedom of expression. If The proposer and the opposer
that sounds like I am stating the The issue involved here is quite a immediately agree to call security and
obvious – I am. But, in my defence, simple one: Is every opinion, however have the audience ejected from the
Orwell once wrote in a review of a book by unpopular – however foolish, even – debating hall.
entitled to a hearing? Put it in that form And so it goes on, until the motion
Bertrand Russell published in the Adelphi
and nearly any English intellectual is carried unanimously.
magazine in January 1939: will feel that he ought to say “Yes”.
. . . we have now sunk to a depth at which But give it a concrete shape, and ask, This was dismissed as “sneering” and,
the restatement of the obvious is the first “How about an attack on Stalin? Is that inevitably, “fascist” by a number of stu-
t

duty of intelligent men. entitled to a hearing?”, and the answer dent commentators. Yet it was only a
2-8 DECEMBER 2016 | NEW STATESMAN | 25
t

restatement of something that Orwell


wrote in the unpublished preface:
. . . everyone shall have the right to say
and to print what he believes to be the
truth, provided only that it does not
harm the rest of the community in some
quite unmistakable way. Both capitalist
democracy and the western versions of
socialism have till recently taken that
principle for granted. Our Government,
as I have already pointed out, still makes
some show of respecting it.
This is not always the case nowadays. It
is always worth a comparison with the atti-
tudes of other countries that we do not wish
to emulate. The EU’s failure to confront
President Erdogan’s closure of newspapers
and arrests of journalists in Turkey because
it wants his help to solve the refugee crisis
is one such obvious example. An old Ger-
man law to prosecute those making fun
of foreign leaders was invoked by Erdogan
and backed by Mrs Merkel. This led Private
Eye to run a competition for Turkish jokes.
My favourites were:

“Knock knock!”
“Who’s there.” Funny peculiar: Private Eye’s cartoon provoked a decidedly mixed reaction – from one reader
“The secret police.”
the decades, but I have found in Private Eye grant/top up/dole payment do you lot get
What do you call a satirist in Turkey?
An ambulance.
that there is not much fury from the Tory, from the EU anyway? Are you even a Brit-
New Labour or Liberal camps when their ish publication?”
As Orwell wrote in even more dangerous leaders or policies are criticised, often in In 1948, in an essay in the Socialist Leader,
times, again in the proposed preface: much harsher ways than the newer, popu- Orwell wrote:
list movements.
. . . the chief danger to freedom of thought Threats to freedom of speech, writing and
and speech at this moment is not the action, though often trivial in isolation,


o, when Private Eye suggested that
direct interference of the [Ministry of are cumulative in their effect and, unless
some of the claims that the Scottish
Information] or any official body. If checked, lead to a general disrespect for
National Party was making for the the rights of the citizen.
publishers and editors exert themselves
to keep certain topics out of print,
future of an independent Scotland
it is not because they are frightened might be exaggerated, there were In other words, the defence of freedom of
of prosecution but because they are one or two readers who quoted Orwell’s speech and expression is not just special
frightened of public opinion. distinction between patriotism being the pleading by journalists, writers, commen-
love of one’s country and nationalism be- tators and satirists, but a more widespread
I return to stating the obvious, because it ing the hatred of others – but on the whole conviction that it protects “the intellec-
seems to be less and less obvious to some of it was mostly: “When if ever will you igno- tual liberty which without a doubt has
the current generation. This is particularly rant pricks on the Eye be sharp enough to been one of the distinguishing marks of
true for those who have recently become burst your smug London bubble?” Western civilisation”.
politically engaged for the first time. Vot- Those who disagreed with the SNP were In gloomy times, there was one letter
ers energised by Ukip and the EU referen- beneath contempt if English and traitors to Private Eye that I found offered some
dum debate, or by the emergence of Jeremy if Scottish. This was matched by the sheer cheer – a willingness to accept opposing
Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party, or by fury of the Corbyn loyalists at coverage of viewpoints and some confirmation of a be-
the resurgence of Scottish nationalism or his problems with opposition in his own lief in the common sense of Orwell’s com-
by the triumph of Trump, have the zeal of party. When we suggested that there might mon man or woman. In response to the car-
the newly converted. This is all very admi- be something a bit fishy about his video on toon above, our correspondent wrote:
rable, and a wake-up call to their opponents the lack of seats on the train to Newcastle,
– the Tartan Tories and the Remoaners and responses included: “I had hoped Private Dear sir,
I suffer from a bipolar condition and
the NeoBlairites and the Washington Lib- Eye was outside the media matrix. Have you
when I saw your cartoon I was absolutely
eral Elite – but it is not admirable when it handed over control to Rupert Murdoch?” disgusted. I looked at it a few days later and
is accompanied by an overpowering desire Their anger was a match for that of the thought it was hilarious. l
to silence any criticism of their ideas, poli- Ukippers when we briefly ran a strip called
cies and leading personalities. Perhaps the At Home With the Ukippers and then made Ian Hislop is the editor of Private Eye. This is
supporters of the mainstream parties have a few jokes about their leader Mr Farage: an edited version of his 2016 Orwell Lecture.
simply become accustomed to the idea over “Leave it out, will you? Just how much of For more details, visit: theorwellprize.co.uk
2-8 DECEMBER 2016 | NEW STATESMAN | 27
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