The Orwell Prize 2007

May 1, 2007

This year’s Orwell Prize, held last Tuesday night at the Frontline Club, reeked of the welcome stench of real reporting – a celebration of journalists and writers who work “from the ground up”, in Martha Gellhorn’s famous phrase. George Orwell would surely have been pleased that his eponymous prize for journalism went to Peter Beaumont, the Observer‘s foreign affairs editor, for a series of outstanding reports from Iraq. And even during some of his most dangerous episodes in Catalonia, Orwell would have been hard pressed to equal the remarkable courage of David Loyn, embedded with the Taleban in Afghanistan. His reports, along with those by Paul Mason, Tim Whewell and others, led to the award of a special prize for broadcast journalism to Peter Barron and his team at Newsnight. Peter Hennessy was the third and final winner, taking the pre-eminent award for political writing for his book, Having it so Good, Britain in the Fifties.

It was standing room only upstairs at the Frontline club. Amongst an impressive gathering of British writing talent were past winners of the prize Polly Toynbee and novelist Delia Jarret-Macauley, along with Will Hutton, Richard Brooks, Marina Warner and many others. Filmmaker Mike Radford, (Il Postino and 1984), cartoonist Martin Rowson, and Today editor Ceri Thomas were also crammed in, beside publishers, academics, and MPs (I think I even spotted the deputy governor of the Bank of England). Orwell’s biographer Bernard Crick – who introduced the evening – and Orwell’s son Richard Blair, ensured the prize remains closely linked with the author. A lot of people clearly still believe in the importance of Orwell’s aim, ‘to make political writing into an art’.

‘The great enemy of clear language’ Orwell wrote, ‘is insincerity’. You could not accuse Peter Beaumont of that. His pieces from Iraq are direct, candid, and often visceral. As with this horrifying article about the ‘hidden victims’ of the war – Iraqi women: ‘They came for Dr Khaula al-Tallal in a white Opel car’ Beaumont writes, ‘after she took a taxi home to the middle class district of Qadissiya in Iraq’s holy city of Najaf. She worked for the medical committee that examined patients to assess them for welfare benefit. Crucially, however, she was a woman in a country where being a female professional increasingly invites a death sentence. As al-Tallal, 50, walked towards her house, one of three men in the Opel stepped out and raked her with bullets.’

Presenting the prize (to the deputy editor of the Observer since Beaumont was, of course, abroad), judge Francis Wheen congratulated a strong field that included Martin Bright, for politically provocative and prescient journalism in the New Statesman, John Rentoul, for being prepared to defend the defenceless (Tony Blair included); Jonathan Freedland for his writing in the Guardian and for a profoundly insightful piece about Ariel Sharon in the New York Review of Books, Steve Richards of the Independent, and Peter Hitchens – more for his delightfully frank foreign dispatches than his ‘fire and brimstone’ Mail columns (read, for example, his article on ‘Iran – a nation of nose jobs, not nuclear war’).

Newsnight’s award for broadcast journalism was a first for the Orwell. But in a time when news organisations are cutting foreign correspondents and reducing the resources available to original journalism, Newsnight’s continued commitment to international reporting well deserves recognition. The judges, said Norma Percy, “did not set out to award this prize”‘, but felt Newsnight to be the “most precious and authoritative home for proper reporting of important stories, beautifully crafted by journalists of rare distinction”.

Hennessy’s winning book captured another aspect of Orwell’s best political writing – the ability to combine high politics with the everyday. Along with the other judges Professor Steve Jones said he could not fault political history writing at its finest. Having it so Good manages to couple insights from the Cabinet table with beach holidays and ice cream. Receiving the prize, Hennessy said he “wanted to save the 1950s from the satirists” of the sixties – the sharp tongues of Beyond the Fringe and TW3 who so successfully lampooned but also demeaned MacMillan’s decade.

Professor Jean Seaton, who took over as Chair of the Orwell this year, said it was Orwell’s ‘brilliant and uncomfortable independence of mind and generous decency’ that she wanted the prizes to celebrate. Orwell ‘always did proper journalism’ Seaton said, and ‘found truths no one had noticed. It is this reflective reporting that I want the prize to value – and his extraordinary legacy of great language used always in the battle against cant.’ When prize inflation makes many awards ever more superficial, thank goodness intelligence, depth, decency and general stroppiness are still being recognised and rewarded.