There is something positively Orwellian about an Orwell Prize that chiefly honours a writer not for his political truth-telling, or originality, or even risk-taking, but for his “lucidity and elegance”.
After all, Leni Riefenstahl is widely credited with making visually stunning movies, but most of us would shrink from the idea of an Orwell Prize in 1935 that celebrated a leading Nazi propagandist. The content matters; otherwise all that lucidity and elegance is simply disguising a logic that may be harmful or dangerous.
Jonathan Freedland, a senior Guardian columnist, has just been named as one of this year’s Orwell Prize winners. He has apparently been listed seven times, and the judges felt his time had finally come because of all that “lucidity and elegance” he excels in.
I have criticised Freedland before for his ugly, chauvinist opinions about Israel (see here and here, eg), and Ben White recently wrote a cogent piece showing Freedland’s repeated pleas for Israeli exceptionalism.
I have also taken Freedland to task for his establishment-friendly arguments in favour of popular political passivity. Here is what I noted about a column of his last year on conspiracy theories:
According to Freedland, if you have doubts about an official and convenient story provided by government to explain away an embarrassing political event – be it David Kelly’s death, JFK’s assassination or maybe 9/11 – then you should be dismissed out of hand as a conspiracy nut. No possibility is conceded that the label “conspiracy theory” may be a very useful way for our political elites to shut down unwelcome scrutiny.
This column alone should have made Freedland ineligible for a Prize named after George Orwell, the man who added to the lexicon words like “doublethink” and “newspeak”.
But Freedland is hardly an exceptional recipient of the Prize. In fact, a trawl through past shortlists and winners shows a pattern of celebrating establishment writers who remain safely with the consensus, even if many winners such as Freedland tend towards the liberal margins of orthodoxy. After all, who can take seriously a prize that has shortlisted, among some genuinely good and brave individuals, elite exponents of newspeak like David Aaronovitch, Melanie Phillips, Nick Cohen, Christopher Hitchens, AA Gill, Charles Moore, Timothy Garton Ash and Andrew Rawnsley.
It is no coincidence that many of these regulars on the shortlist for the Orwell Prize were arch-propagandists for the illegal war on Iraq in 2003. The Orwell Prize has largely come to serve journalism’s great and good – another gong for intellectual services rendered to liberal, and sometimes not so liberal, political orthodoxy.