During my PhD research trip to Britain in 2005 I became addicted to The Sun. I would arrange to meet British friends and research contacts in pubs in the East End of London or in Hull; they would arrive to find me nursing a mug of Tetley’s Ale and ogling the inner pages of Rupert Murdoch’s notorious tabloid.
It sounded unconvincing then, and will probably sound unconvincing now, but the truth is that I didn’t become an avid reader of The Sun because of the page three girls, or the celebrity tittle-tattle, or the reactionary right-wing politics. What fascinated me was the manner in which the paper’s articles were constructed. The Sun’s journalists – the term seems almost inappropriate – built their stories out of simple, active voice sentences linked together three at a time in paragraphs that had the terseness of bullet points. A story rarely consisted of more than half a dozen paragraphs. The vocabulary of the paper was determinedly concrete: abstract nouns and words of more than three syllables were hard to find. The paper’s editorials seldom departed from the strict rules that governed the rest of its prose.
Critics of The Sun often talk about the way the paper ‘argues’ or ‘makes the case’ for right-wing politics and philistine, xenophobic attitudes. The fact is, though, that the paper almost never engages in argument. More baroque publications of the right – the Wall Street Journal, for example, or The Times – are filled with opinion pieces which advance, however tendentiously, detailed arguments in favour of tax breaks for the rich, wars in the Middle East, and other currently favoured policies of conservatives, but The Sun does not bother with such trifles. The paper offers assertion after assertion, and carefully selected fact after carefully selected fact, without bothering to attach them to arguments.
There is a logic to The Sun’s procedures. To argue explicitly for a worldview is to make one’s audience aware of the fact that there are alternatives to that view, and to suggest that argument is an appropriate response to ideological differences. The Sun prefers to immerse its readers in its worldview, and it accomplishes this feat with an efficiency that is almost spectacular.
In his last novel, George Orwell imagined an effort to ‘reform’ English by greatly reducing the language’s vocabulary and eliminating ambiguity from its remaining words. The ‘Newspeak’ of Ninety Eighty-Four is distinguished by its precision and concreteness, and it is these qualities which make users of the language unable to think creatively, let alone subversively.
Nineteen Eighty-Four was intended not as a prophecy but as a satire of the postwar world, including the capitalist countries of the West. Orwell ridiculed US consumer culture, for example, in his descriptions of his heroine Julia’s work at a ‘factory’ which mass-produced porn novels for the ‘proles’. The dreary austerity of post-war Britain was satirised in the Chestnut café, where characters drank watery gin and smoked tasteless cigarettes, and the increasingly remote leadership of the post-war Labour Party, with its tendency to take on the trappings and habits of the British bourgeoisie, was lampooned in Orwell’s description of the division between the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ sections of the party of Ingsoc. It is a pity that it is only Orwell’s enemies on the left, namely the Soviet Union and the Communist Parties loyal to Moscow, which have been popularly identified as the targets of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
They may have failed to influence popular perceptions of Ninety Eighty-Four, but many Orwell scholars have identified Western journalists, as well as Stalinist propagandists, as one of the targets of Orwell’s discussions of Newspeak. Orwell worked for many years in the newspaper business, and was employed by the BBC during World War Two. He knew how easily a few strokes of a subeditor’s pen could change the emphasis, and sometimes even the whole meaning, of a news report. He had a horror of philistine editors, and of political censorship. All satire involves exaggeration, and Orwell’s concept of Newspeak seems like an exaggerated but fundamentally truthful portrait of the methods of the bureaucrats of the word that the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four so often had to deal with.
It seemed to me in 2005 that The Sun , with its carefully circumscribed vocabulary and relentless concreteness, was working unwittingly towards the actualisation of Orwell’s Newspeak. When I expressed this fear to friends, they tended to shrug their shoulders, and to ask me why I bothered to read the paper in the first place. Did they have a point? If Sun readers want to wallow in ignorance, isn’t that their business? Why should the rest of us worry?
I think we should worry, because The Sun is only an extreme example of a much wider tendency towards the instrumentalisation of language and the elimination of the complexity and nuance that makes good writing, and good thinking, possible. In a long article for The Atlantic in 2008, the technosceptic Nicholas Carr suggests that market forces and the internet are conspiring to change the way we read, the way we think, and even the way our brains are wired. Citing neurologists as well as literary critics, Carr argues that the internet is making us ‘shallow’ rather than ‘deep’ readers and thinkers, as we skip merrily from one online text to another. Attention spans are shrinking.
Carr rounds on Google as a symbol of all that is wrong with the way that capitalism is using the internet. He explains that Google sees information as a kind of commodity, ‘a utilitarian resource that can be wired and processed with industrial efficiency’. Google operates as though the mind is a mechanical rather than a creative device, and consequently has no place for the ‘fuzziness of contemplation’. For Google, ambiguity is not an ‘opening for insight’ but a ‘bug to be fixed’. Like the architects of Newspeak, the executives of Google dream of making our language perfectly precise.
In Ninety Eighty-Four, Orwell opposes the half-forgotten richness of poetry to the grotesque precision of Newspeak. Winston Smith, the novel’s rather uncertain hero, tries to retain a fragment of an old poem in his mind, as a sort of good luck charm, and wakes from a dream of rebellion and the open countryside with the mysterious name ‘Shakespeare’ on his lips. Today poetry, with its frequent refusal of explicit statement and its reliance on the complex chords of meaning that words can strike, seems particularly at odds with the instrumentalisation of language represented in different ways by The Sun and by Google. Good poetry cannot be skimmed on a screen, or condensed into a slogan or search word: it must be read ‘deeply’, or not at all.
Recently David Yelland, who had the dubious distinction of editing The Sun between 1998 and 2003, published an article in which he confessed to two scandalous weaknesses. Yelland revealed that he was a daily drunk during his tenure at The Sun. He often woke in the morning unable to remember the editorial he had written the night before, and he was once so drunk he turned up to a meeting with Rupert Murdoch wearing two shirts and two ties. Yelland explains his drunkeness by saying that he was unhappy with The Sun’s politics, and with much of its content. Getting tanked was his way of coping with the xenophobia, the cheesey page three girls, and the relentless snooping on beleagured celebrities like Kate Moss.
Yelland’s other confession is more surprising. During his darkest days at The Sun, he turned to poetry as well as the bottle for succour:
I know it sounds mad but I began to take huge comfort in poetry, my first love, and would often reach for one of the slim volumes I kept hidden at the back of my office. I felt a love of T. S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas and Keats was not wholly compatible with being editor of The Sun.
Indeed I once hid a copy of The Waste Land inside my own paper – had it been Playboy, no one would have batted an eyelid.
Yelland’s memoir appeared in the Daily Mail, a tabloid which rivals The Sun for self-righteous philistinism, and so a few of his readers might have shaken their heads at his secret literary excursions. Winston Smith, though, would understand Yelland’s attraction to poetry, as well as his furtiveness. For Smith and for Yelland, poetry offers, in its very recalcitrance, its very refusal to be controlled and directed by subeditors and propagandists, a subversive example. As TS Eliot wrote, in the opening section of The Waste Land:
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.