Director of The Orwell Foundation

Exclusive interview to Kitabistan
article about 'Director of The Orwell Foundation' and 'Exclusive interview to Kitabistan'

Kitabistan does not consider that its Enlightenment work enough with the translation and publication of books. We examine the examples of the developed countries of the world for Enlightenment and present them to the Azerbaijani readers through books, researches, translations and conferences. However, we do not stop there. We interview various researchers and professors from the world's leading universities so that all our audiences can read and learn from their ideas.
Our next interviewee is Jean Seaton, President of the George Orwell Foundation, Official Historian of BBC and Professor of Media History at the University of Westminster. We talked to her about George Orwell's works - "1984" and "Animal Farm", as well as Orwell's view of censorship and the media.
We present the interview to our readers.

- Let's start the interview with the George Orwell Foundation. You are the director of the foundation since 2007. What is the purpose and main activity of the George Orwell Foundation?

- So, the foundation was originally set up, well it was a prize then, by George Orwell's biographer Sir Bernard Crick, who was also a great parliamentary reformer. And when I took it over it was just a prize. But what we do is try and make people think hard about Orwell's own work. We try and take them back, not uncritically. We're very keen on criticism. This is Orwell, this isn't a cult. This is interrogative in nature. So, we try and take people back in various ways to Orwell's work. We've done live readings of his work, we work with young people. But we also try and take his values, which are quite unusual and distinct set of values. For instance, he's not a pacifist. For instance, he's got great personal integrity. He believed in reality. He believed in truth, however uncomfortable or awkward it was. He believed in poor people. He believed in the veracity of poor people's lives. And he believed above all in two things. One of which was almost the sort of sanctity of language, the way in which if you interfere with language, then people don't have the words to think critical thoughts with. So he's very, very keen on protecting language. And the other thing he was very keen on doing was trying to make people imaginatively and intellectually engage with that bigger thing, which is politics. So, we try and take those values and look around if we do it as Orwell would have wanted. I don't know. You know, he's not alive, he's dead. But we try and take those values and his work and we award a set of literary prizes for political writing, for political fiction, for journalism, for social evils reporting, and we have a youth prize on the grounds that he wrote political essays. He did imaginative literature, in fact, I think in the end everything comes to that. He wrote a lot about the social conditions in Britain and he wrote a lot about world affairs. So, we try and we find the journalists and writers who, according to our independent judges, we have fantastic judges, best meet those criteria. And we're about to go into America, which is a whole other kind of world. We try to separate what is good. You might say in a very, very competitive market in which lies and falsehoods are very successful, we try and make people pay attention to what is truthful and good. That's what we try and do.

- If we are talking about Orwell, we cannot pass without mentioning censorship. According to Orwell, there are two types of censorship. First, official censorship as he defined it in 1984, and second, self-censorship. Which do you think is more dangerous?

- I think they're ineradicably interlinked actually. I think that self-censorship happens also in safe places and self-censorship is an odd thing. Because it's also about your biases and the things that you just take for granted which you shouldn't. He's very good at this. He uses himself actually in a very unique way. He doesn't say, “Ohh, I'm miserable”. He says, “Ohh, I've been awful”. In that sense, he's quite inspiring in the contemporary moment, actually, in which people want to say, “I'm a victim, it's terrible”. He never says that. He always says “I had this terrible thought about racism or I had this prejudice”. He uses himself in the most flagellating, self-punishing way. So, I don't think you can distinguish them. In any system where there is any degree of fear, people's almost necessary self-censorship goes up. So, in the end, I think he says self-censorship is the worst because he's actually really concerned about how an individual thinks. So, self-censorship is sort of the worst. But it's obvious that if there are consequences, there are penalties, there are dangers. You know, all over the world, journalists are in prison. Evan Gersovich is in prison just for reporting. Now, would he have? You know, will reporters go to Russia to tell us? No, they won't. If you look at India, where I go a lot, the interaction between a successful state ideological move really on freedom of speech, on critics, on the opposition, also has the consequence of making, changing people's heads. So, I think to fight censorship you have to fight both. 

- According to my observations, we also come across the 3rd type of censorship. We call it among ourselves "Cutting information with cotton". That is, to ignore and block information. Let me give you an example. For example, we publish and present Theador Herzl's much-debated work, The Jewish State, on the border with a country that has adopted a completely anti-Semitic line. Or we print and present books on democracy, the rule of law, gender equality and other topics. However, some major Western media outlets operating in Azerbaijan do not publish this news, contrary to their charters. I know you are also a professor of Media History at the University of Westminster. I'm curious, are the precedents of “cutting information with the cotton” being researched?

- That's interesting and I don't know about that. I would have to go and inquire it. Azerbaijan, like any news story, has to be a news story that catches the eye. The quantity of actual journalists in the world has actually declined and the resource for proper journalism has also declined. So, you know, there are challenges to journalism.

That's happening increasingly everywhere. The capacity to put voices and people into a black hole rather like you know, the hole in 1984 that he puts the reform of new things down is on the up. I think there are two things. These are, as it were, the problem of news values and the way in which they have mutated and then there's the direct control of news which is a different thing. So, without phoning up the BBC World Service which must be one of the things you're getting at, I don't know what's going on. There are also problems with verifying things. For instance, the Iranian women's protests were very big for a little bit of time and now there have been a series of documentaries on what's happening but they're not in the news. But presumably, there are things happening in Iran. So, you know the news has got a strange eye.

- In "1984" Orwell talks about methods of creating a new language, that is, corrupting the language, and limiting it. In fact, it is also an attack on the brain, on freedom of thought. We know that this method was used as a psychological weapon in the Soviet Union. How can media operations be made more effective so that these methods can be avoided?

It's about identifying reality and using straightforward words to describe it. These both are difficult jobs actually. I mean identifying reality is sometimes easy. Russia invaded Ukraine. So, it's not a special operation, it's an invasion. I mean, that's a very easy reality. Orwell was concerned about using language in which it is not a difficult thing to identify what's really happening. So, there are some realities that it's really quite easy to say. I mean Russia doesn't want to say but it's quite easy to say that it's clear to the Chinese, who are supporting Russia, that they invaded Ukraine. They may not use that language but they know it. We don't know whether Russians know it. It's clear to South Africa that Russia invaded Ukraine, they just approve of it. So, there is a language that describes fairly simple realities. Let's take climate change. It will be another thing because big organizations have said “it is unequivocally happening and it is made by man”. Right? And that was a kind of decision about a decade ago. Whether or not we're doing anything about it, that is a totally recognized reality. I mean people may want to deny it but the big serious news organizations, particularly actually led by BBC. And if you talked to climate change activists that was a very important moment. So, that's saying something is happening, the scientific evidence is there for it. You can have an argument about what you believe about it and perhaps you listen to the people who don't believe it's happening. Because you need to understand why they don't think it's happening and what their politics is. But it is happening. So, there are kinds of realities that seem to me to have taken some struggle but they are there. There are other ones in the UK which I know better. In the end, we had quite low rates of people not taking Covid vaccinations, right? So, most people did take them. That was a really difficult piece of work which was a puzzle to somebody like me. Why wouldn't you take a scientific miracle to stop you getting a disease that would kill you? I mean, it was kind of mad. But there were some very interesting works about how to establish that and how to persuade people. So, there are some realities which are more contested. You know, they are difficult for people to arrive at. There are other debates going on. So, I think that the evidence and the nature of the evidence you bring to bear on identify what is happening. For instance, in some ways the Internet has been amazing and there is very good data journalism. You can see where the fires are around the war in Ukraine. It doesn't take somebody to tell you something because the satellite shows you. So, in one way we're in a kind of a good place in reality, in another place people seem to believe everything's been politicized which is really what the Russians invented. If you politicize all knowledge, that sadly is spreading, then, if I say “Covid is real” that suddenly becomes a political not a scientific fact. That's the real problem. The politicization of the Enlightenment is anti-Enlightenment. 

- Regarding your answer, a question came to my mind. Until 10 years ago, the progressive Western media was presenting the person who is currently carrying out an occupation policy against Ukraine, with charismatic, powerful and other positive epithets, even though they knew that he was restricting human rights and freedoms. But they were talking about a tyrant. And tyrants are never satisfied. The West saw this in the 1st and 2nd World Wars. I'm curious about your opinion. As a media historian, what do you think they overlooked?

- It is also true that in the run-up to the Second World War what was happening in Germany was, by many organizations, overlooked or demoted. So, I think there was an assumption, a quite crude assumption but it looks as if it worked, that if you had something like capitalism you would get something like the rule of law and something that would give resources and indeed rights to people.

And that looked as if you could do that, in a sense, progress was a set of things that were interlinked. And of course, in China there is hyper-capitalism, there's unregulated capitalism except it is regulated by the state. It has delivered enormous improvements to the life of the average Chinese citizen. I mean astonishing differences. Much bigger actually than what India has been able to deliver for its people. So, people went along with what looked like a booming normal place. And in many ways, I think Russia fell into that. But there were of course lots of media, including my own son, that around the invasion of Syria really started to say Russia is completely out of control and with the extremely unpleasant collaboration of Turkey. And there was a key point anyway. It was Barack Obama saying that “chemical warfare would be a red line”. And then it turned out not to be a red line. I was in Georgia in 2008, when the Russians came in. In a way, I think one is in danger of saying "They got it wrong, so they always got it wrong" rather than "They got it wrong, how can we get it better right?".

I mean there is a kind of whataboutery which is very prevalent at the moment, which is an odd effect of globalization. If you say to somebody things are very very nasty in India, they say, well things are very nasty in Israel. But that's no answer to things being asked. That is not an answer to things being asked in India, let alone in Pakistan. So, I think we are at a very difficult point. You know, it is pretty dark.

- We know from the Soviet example that totalitarian systems have always kept talented and progressive people behind the iron curtain. Official or unofficial media censorship has played or continues to play a major role in this process. But when Orwell worked for the BBC he produced a whole series of programmes for India and introduced great Indian writers to large audiences. I am interested in your opinion as an expert. What kind of work do today's media organizations do in order to expose those progressive persons who are kept behind the iron curtain?

That's a very interesting question and slightly beyond my... So, the BBC World Service, of course, played an absolutely key role and rather different role from Voice of America. Very different role, in the run-up to the fall of the Iron Curtain and it also played a very important role in Poland in the run-up to the revolution there. Because it has sort of sets of principles in Russia. So, I think the key principle has always been, and I've always approved of that, which is that you don't hector people, you don't tell them they're wrong. What you do is trying to give them accurate information and also nurture. You know, they're great culture. There is a movement around at the moment which doesn't want to listen to Russian music and doesn't want to read Pushkin. I think that is lunatic completely. You know “bring it on, the Russian composers played by Russian audiences for those of the values that we want” (red. laughs). During the Second World War, the BBC never stopped playing German music. It was the first decision and it did that dadadadaa.. which was the whole sign of the World services. It is Beethoven. So, what the media houses doing is probably not enough. I recently did an event at Pushkin House in London which was about Russian culture and obviously came out against the war in Ukraine. There were absolutely wonderful pictures by young Russian artist of women protesting. Really, really fantastic pictures. So, I think things are being done and of course, there's been a great increase for instance in our understanding, the more general understanding of the way in which Ukraine is Russian. So, I think fostering culture which is quite a complicated thing, is a key task. Because it gives people an imaginative world in their own language. I'm very keen on something that you can call the imaginative capital. Imaginative capital is the resources people have to see themselves and to see other people's points of view and project themselves into a future which is different. So, creating an imaginative capital is one of the things that we hope to do at Orwell (Foundation). That's what he did. 1984 and Animal Farm work, because they allow you to see, if you're in a very safe democracy, the things that might be going wrong. And if you're in tyrannies they're always banned. So, I just did a thing called book aid which takes books basically to Africa. I mean, you know, in my time I'm taking books places. So, I mean I think it's a really interesting question and probably “not enough” is the answer.

- We also know that Orwell was a founding member of organizations like Amnesty and Pen, which works to protect writers and freedom of speech. I want to know what steps the Orwell Foundation is taking to protect writers and freedom of speech?

We are a very very small charity. We don't have as our object protecting writers and freedom of speech. Because we don't have the capacity to do so. But we do have the capacity to reward writers. We are very British-based because Orwell was also British-based. We don't have an international prize. In fact, we've often thought we would like to have an International Prize. We are planning to get some money to run it. Everything takes money. We certainly, for instance, try and make sure that the journalists that we've rewarded are journalists whose work has often been quite threatened. Including someone like Marie Colvin who was more or less deliberately targeted in the Syrian War, almost killed. We've got quite limited objectives. We work with English Pen I think a rather more dynamic organization than the International Pen. So, I think this possibility is there. But, you know, we do what we do, we can't do what we could do.

- What book would you recommend to our readers to read?

Ohh, what a lovely question! Natalia Ginzburg, an Italian writer and freedom fighter and also an Italian MP, who was behind the Great Movement in Italian cinema. I just happened to be reading a lot of her. And there is a book called "The Dry Heart" which is about Italy during the Second World War. And if it doesn't make you cry right at the end then you're an idiot. But she writes with very straight writing, it is very clear writing but quite an old voice. There is a wonderful book called "The Little Virtues" that is about what she values about children.

Arthur Koestler's "Darkness at Noon" is very influential. And if I was thinking of a contemporary writer actually I just loved plucky "Death and the Penguin" which again is a surreal book.

- I have never heard about it

- It's incredibly funny.  I'll send you an email. And it's very sad. It's completely surreal. It's about a writer who takes up about penguin. It is about Russia. It's a wonderful example of Russian wit cynicism. It's by Andrey Kurkov. It's about 7 or 8 years old. It's a miracle of funniness and wit. What literature does is to create this kind of weird world which is nevertheless very critical of what is going on in Russia. These are wonderful books. Any of those books. And then weirdly this isn’t at all in Orwell, and I am not sure if he would approve of this but there is an essay by John Stuart Mill. “Freedom of expression”. It's the most wonderful book. He says arguments are beautiful, you should have them because they are beautiful in themselves however strong your case is. It's very opposed to the Middleton case actually. However strong your case being tested by an argument will make it stronger. But also arguments are wonderful things. And it seems to me that tyrannies lose out on the beauty of argument.

- Thank you so much for the answers I am really delighted to have a talk with you.

- Thank you very much for the interview and for the questions.

Malak Hajiyeva