The Orwell Prize was established in its present form by the late Professor Sir Bernard Crick in 1994 ‘to encourage writing in good English – while giving equal value to style and content, politics or public policy, whether political, economic, social or cultural – of a kind aimed at or accessible to the reading public, not to specialist or academic audiences’.
Bernard Crick was approached by Sonia Orwell and publishers Secker & Warburg to write the authorised biography of George Orwell, and signed a contract to that effect, in 1974. The biography – rather less authorised by the time of its publication in 1980 – was critically acclaimed and seen as one of Crick’s great legacies, but so too was his decision upon signing the contract to make an irrevocable grant of the English volume hardback rights, in trust, to Birkbeck College. Bernard hoped that the money would ‘help projects by young writers who would have interested Orwell himself had he lived’.
In 1980, just before the book was published, David Astor – a great friend of Orwell’s, his editor at The Observer and the person who suggested Barnhill on Jura as a retreat – agreed to match Crick’s grant as a tribute. The first trustees of the George Orwell Memorial Trust (the Orwell Trust) were appointed, and additional funding came from Richard Blair (Orwell’s adopted son and still involved in the Prize today) and friends and admirers of Orwell, including the journalist Lord Ardwick (John Bevan), the philosopher Sir Alfred Ayer, historian (and Orwell’s fellow Etonian) Sir Steven Runciman, the writer Julian Symons, The Manchester Evening News, The Observer and Tribune.
The fund – with Arnold Wesker, Alan Plater, and Professors Barbara Hardy, Eric Hobsbawm and Karl Millar being among the early trustees – made grants to projects from young writers, but, according to Crick, ‘projects were hard to evaluate and too many did not appear to result in discernible writing’. As a result, in 1985 the fund was diverted to endowing an annual memorial lecture at Birkbeck College and the University of Sheffield, and making ‘small grants for departmental Orwell occasions’. Although the fund was added to – notably, in 1984, Crick and Blair added half-shares of interview and lecture fees – the lecture fund began eating into its capital. The Sheffield lecture and the departmental grants were discontinued in 2000; the Birkbeck lecture continues today as the Orwell Lecture.
In 1993, Bernard Crick – through his long association with the journal Political Quarterly, of which he was then literary editor – arranged funding from them to launch and administer an annual Orwell Prize, inviting entries of political books and journalism. The plan had been for a single prize (of £1000) to be awarded. But the judges – Bernard Crick for PQ and the Orwell Trust, Malcolm Dean for PQ and the late Alan Plater for the Orwell Trust – found this difficult.
Delivering the judges’ report, Plater said:
We began with a confession. The two of us who are also Orwell Trustees and therefore party to the stated rules of the prize found ourselves hoist by our own over-weaning ambition. As judges we were able to express clear preferences within the books and journalism categories, but found it totally impossible to create a league table embracing both disciplines. No fantasy league yet invented can offer a level playing field for Manchester United versus Glamorgan… Our judicial solution is to separate the categories of books and journalism and split the prize down the middle.
Anatol Lieven’s The Baltic Revolution: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and the Path to Independence (‘not, perhaps, what the PR kiddies would regard as a great selling title, but a remarkable account of the social, historical and political complexities of the Baltic states’) edged out Michael Ignatieff’s Blood Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism to take the first Book Prize (Ignatieff would win with Virtual War in 2001). The first Journalism Prize went to Neal Ascherson for his work in the Independent on Sunday (ahead of Fintan O’Toole for the Irish Times).
Bernard Crick was chair of the judges until 2006. The Orwell Prize 2007 marked a transition, as Jean Seaton, Professor of Media History at the University of Westminster, took over as chair.
In 2008, the Orwell Prize came under the auspices of the Media Standards Trust, and employed an administrator, Gavin Freeguard.
Under Seaton, the role of the director of the Prize has become separate from that of a judge, and – to cope with the expanding number of entries and the Prize’s concern with the integrity of the judging process – the number of judges has increased. Longlists were officially announced from the 2008 Prize, to promote as much good political writing as possible.
In 2009, a Special Prize for Blogs was awarded to pseudonymous police blogger ‘Jack Night’ – unmasked as Richard Horton following the landmark High Court case, The Author of a Blog vs Times Newspapers. The Blog Prize ran until 2012.
With the full support of Bill Hamilton, literary executor of the Orwell estate at A. M. Heath, and Richard Blair, the Orwell Prize has become the official home of George Orwell online. A growing collection of works by and about Orwell was supplemented in summer 2008 by the launch of the Orwell Diaries blog, which is ‘post-blogging’ Orwell’s domestic and political diaries from 1938-42, seventy years to the day after each entry was written. The site was nominated for a Webby Award in 2009 and sparked global media interest. The Prize has been indebted to the generosity of Orwell scholars (including D. J. Taylor and Gordon Bowker), the Finlay Publisher website run by Dione Venables, and especially to Peter Davison (and his wife, Sheila), editor of Orwell’s Complete Works and Orwell oracle. The Prize continues to work with the UCL Orwell archive and others to expand the online Orwell collection.
In 2015, the Orwell Prize became an independent, registered charity (number 1161563) and launched the Orwell Prize for Exposing Britain’s Social Evils with the sponsorship and support of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
The Orwell Youth Prize was established under the auspices of the Orwell Prize in 2014, ran its pilot programme in 2014 – 2015 and its first official year in 2015 – 2016. The Orwell Youth Prize aims to inspire and encourage the next generation of politically engaged young writers. Find out more on the Orwell Youth Prize pages of this website.