Orwell and the Killing of the News of the World

By Jamie

12 July 2011

A guest post by Richard Lance Keeble*

One of the most intriguing aspects of the News of the World’s final issue on 10 July was its prominent use of a quotation by George Orwell – on the back page and again as the opening paragraph in the Page Three editorial. In full, the quote reads:

‘It is Sunday afternoon, preferably before the war. The wife is already asleep in the armchair, and the children have been sent out for a nice long walk. You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose, and open the News of the World.’

Such a positioning of the quote, if nothing else, confirms the extraordinary, iconic place George Orwell still holds in the political and cultural life of the country – more than 60 years after his death at the tragically young age of 46.

Yet on closer inspection, the quote appears to be a strange choice to adorn NotW’s “Thank you and goodbye” edition. It comes at the start of an essay he wrote while literary editor of the leftist weekly journal Tribune. Titled “Decline of the English Murder” it was published on 15 February 1946.

Over around 2,000 words Orwell examines nine murder cases during what he describes as the “great period” between 1850 and 1925 and compares them to the Cleft Chin Murder of 1944 (so called because the victim, a taxi driver, had a cleft chin). Orwell lists the “great” murders (Dr Palmer of Rugely, Jack the Ripper, Neill Cream, Mrs Maybrick, Dr Crippen, Seddon, Joseph Smith, Armstrong, and Bywaters and Thompson) but provides no dates.

Analysing them (and excluding the Jack the Ripper case since “it is in a class by itself”) he finds that most of the criminals belonged to the middle class, most involved poisoning and the background to all (except one) was domestic: of twelve victims seven were either wife or husband of the murderer. From these conclusions Orwell goes on to construct a fascinating picture of the “perfect” murder:

The murderer should be a little man of the professional class – a dentist or a solicitor, say – living an intensely respectable life somewhere in the suburbs, and preferably in a semi-detached house, which will allow the neighbours to hear suspicious sounds through the wall. He should be either chairman of the local Conservative Party branch, or a leading Nonconformist and strong Temperance advocate. He should go astray through cherishing a guilty passion for his secretary or the wife of a rival professional man, and should only bring himself to the point of murder after long and terrible wrestles with his conscience.

In contrast to these murders, Orwell castigates the Cleft Chin Murder for having “no depth of feeling in it”. The two culprits involved, an eighteen-year-old ex-waitress Elizabeth Jones and an American army deserter, posing as an officer, Karl Hulten, sadly lacked the middle classness of the “great murderers”. Rather than use poison in a seedy domestic drama, Hulten and Jones went on a mindless killing spree – first running over a girl bicycling along a road, then throwing a girl into the river after robbing her and finally murdering a taxi driver who happened to have £8 in his pocket.

While the News of the World prided itself on its appeal across the classes and to the working man and woman, here Orwell betrays his underlying middle classness. This he associates with stability and strong, authentic emotion in contrast to the instability and working classness of the contemporary murder. For Orwell, “the old domestic poisoning dramas” were a “product of a stable society where the all-pervading hypocrisy did at least ensure that crimes as serious as murder should have strong emotions behind them”.

As Paul Anderson says in his brilliant overview of Orwell’s writings while on Tribune (Politico’s 2006), this essay amounts to a “masterpiece of dark nostalgia for the good old days of middle class poisoners”.

The quotation also identifies the imagined reader as exclusively male (the wife is said to be “asleep in the armchair”). This then again makes the quote a strange one for the NotW to use so prominently – since women as much as men were its target audience.

But on reflection perhaps the Orwell essay about the decline of English murder was a subtle choice by the editor: Rupert Murdoch, after all, killed off his 168-year-old Sunday jewel in a ruthless act which appears to have had “no depth of feeling in it”.

* Professor Richard Lance Keeble is Acting Head of the Lincoln School of Journalism

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