The head of Liberty on why the writer would have had plenty to get his teeth into in the modern age
The best clues as to what Orwell would write about today surely come from his great 1946 essay Politics and the English Language. There, he set out the ways in which abuses of language and truth so readily and often lead to abuses of power. While he illustrated this powerful theory with examples of ugly, unclear and ultimately misleading prose, today the Orwell prize, established in his name, positively celebrates work that speaks truth to power and shines a light on the darkest distortions of fact and argument.
I can think of some obvious scandals that the original Mr Blair would target for exposure if writing today.
The government’s ironically titled justice and security bill, currently winging its way through parliament, delivers neither of the noble virtues in its label. Instead it will introduce the secret courts that became such a creeping cancer of the “war on terror” (a phrase which must have given the writer a few spins in his grave), across the English civil legal system forever.
In defence of a system where government, military, security or police lawyers are allowed to rely on secret evidence untested by public or journalistic scrutiny – or even disclosure and argument with a victim and counsel – the bill’s proponents misrepresent our current law. They suggest that judges have not protected the balance between justice and secrecy or have un-masked spooks in court and compromised national security. Of course they fail to cite a single case where this has happened and so revert to a residual argument truly worthy of the over-used adjective “Orwellian”. What if, they say … there were a hypothetical case where a civil claim could either not be brought or defended; a judge having ruled that all or most of the relevant evidence were too sensitive to be aired in court?
True enough, it is always hard on a victim who cannot muster sufficient evidence (for whatever reason – usually insufficient resources) to bring a claim, but what a distortion to imagine that anyone would find better comfort in a case that has been made, argued, stitched up and dismissed behind closed doors between the authorities and a judge. As for the heartbreaking myth of a security establishment unable to defend itself from completely unfounded allegations without recourse to a private chat with the judge, how does this square with the basic rule that it is the claimant (bringing ther action against government) who must prove their case?
But just as the securocrats countenance no scrutiny for them, it seems there is to be no privacy for us. The innocuous-sounding Draft Communications Data Bill would trawl and scoop up the web activity of every person in the country regardless of whether they had ever been reasonably suspected of a crime. The argument is understandable and as old as the hills. Bad things happen in private so greater safety is achieved by allowing no private space anywhere, and surveillance must be “updated” so as to allow no privacy on-line. This is quite literally an argument for an Orwellian nightmare constructed for our own good. Imagine all the sexual and violent crimes that go on in private homes. Is that proportionate justification for building legal and physical architecture requiring cameras and microphones in every living room and bedroom in the land – just in case? “If you want a vision of the future, Winston, imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever.”
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