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George Orwell on Censorship

George Orwell

from “Publication of Animal Farm: The Freedom of the Press, London, 1945

“In this country intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face, and that fact does not seem to me to have had the discussion it deserves.”

This book [Animal Farm] was first thought of, so far as the central idea goes, in 1937, but was not written down until about the end of 1943. By the time when it came to be written it was obvious that there would be great difficulty in getting it published (in spite of the present book shortage which ensures anything describable as a book will ‘sell’), and in the event it was refused by four publishers. Only one of those had any ideological motive. Two had been publishing anti-Russian books for years, and the other had no noticeable political colour. One publisher actually started by accepting the book, but after making the preliminary arrangements he decided to consult the Ministry of Information, who appear to have warned him, or at any rate strongly advised him, against publishing it. Here is an extract from his letter:

“I mentioned the reaction I had from an important official in the Ministry of Information with regard to Animal Farm. I must confess that this expression of opinion has given me seriously to think…I can see now that it might be regarded as something which it was highly ill-advised to publish at the present time. If the fable were addressed generally to dictators and dictatorships at large then publication would be all right, but the fable does follow, as I see now, so completely the progress of the Russian Soviets and their two dictators, that it can appy only to Russia to the exclusion of the other dictatorships. Another thing: it would be less offensive if the predominant caste in the fable were not pigs. I think the choice of pigs as the ruling caste will no doubt give offence to many people, and particularly to anyone who is a bit touchy, as undoubtedly the Russians are.

This kind of thing is not a good symptom. Obviously it is not desirable that a government department should have any power of censorship (except security censorship, which no one objects to in war time) over books which are not officially sponsored. But the chief danger to freedom of thought and speech at this moment is not the direct interference of the MOI or any official body. If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion. In this country intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face, and that fact does not seem to me to have had the discussion it deserves.

Any fair-minded person with journalistic experience will admit that during this war official censorship has not been particularly irksome. We have not been subjected to the kind of totalitarian ‘co-ordination’ that it might have been reasonable to expect. The press has some justified grievances, but on the whole the Government had behaved well and has been surprisingly tolerant of minority opinions. The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban . Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news – things which on their own merits would get the big headlines –being kept right out of the British press not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact. So far as the daily newspapers go, this is easy to understand. The British press is extremely centralized, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every reason to be dishonest on certain important topics. But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and pamphlets, as well as in plays, films, and radio. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals At this moment what is demanded by the prevailing orthodoxy is an uncritical admiration of the Soviet regime, any disclosure of facts which the Soviet government would prefer to keep hidden, is next door to ‘unprintable’. And this nation-wide conspiracy to flatter our ally take place, curiously enough, against a background of genuinely intellectual tolerance. For though you are not allowed to criticize the Soviet government, at least you are reasonably free to criticize our own. Hardly anyone will print an attack on Stalin, but it is quite safe to attack Churchill, at any rate in books and periodicals. And throughout 5 years of war, during 2 or 3 of which we were fighting for national survival, countless books, pamphlets, and articles advocating a compromise peace have been published without interference. More, they have been published without extracting much disapproval. So long as the prestige of the U.S.S.R. is not involved, the principle of free speech has reasonably well been maintained. There are other forbidden topics, and I shall mention some of them presently, but the prevailing attitude towards the U.S.S.R. is much the most serious symptom. It is, as it were, spontaneous and it not due to the action of any pressure group.