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May 7, 2008

Only-human Pilger on the right Rhodes in South Africa

The granting of an honorary degree to investigative journalist John Pilger in South Africa reminded Axegrinder of the time in the Seventies when Pilger, while working for the The Daily Mirror, got himself kicked out of the country minutes after arriving.

After landing at Jan Smuts Airport in Johannesburg he was given an immigration form to complete. One of the questions referred to race, meaning white, black, polka dot or whatever. In the section, Pilger wrote ‘Human’which resulted in him being kicked straight out of the country, all the immigration officers at the time having had sense of humour by-passes.

Now Pilger has been granted an honorary degree by Rhodes University in Grahamstown. The man who proposed it, and who delivered the address, was Paul Maylam, professor of history.

He mentioned all Pilger’s great stories from Vietnam, Cambodia, East Timor, Egypt, India, Bangladesh and Biafra, and Pilger’s documentary film, Year Zero, which brought the world’s attention for the first time to the atrocities being committed by the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia.

But it wasn’t all heavy stuff. Maylam had asked former Rhodes student and Daily Mirror journalist Bryan Rostron, now a playwright in Cape Town, to gather some lighter stories. And one revelation came from Pilger’s former boss, Mike Molloy, who edited the Mirror in those heady days when the circulation topped four million a day.

This was Molloy’s contribution:

John Pilger got his job on The Daily Mirror by telling two lies. Michael Christiansen, the assistant editor in charge of features, hired him because at that time in the early 1960s he was trying to put together a crack cricket team and as John was an Australian, he assumed he would naturally be good at the game.

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Actually, John had a profound indifference to cricket. His sport was rowing, in which he excelled, but seeing the opportunity he claimed a love of cricket was the driving force in life.

The second lie was that he was a couple of years older than he actually was. John assumed that Fleet Street would require journalists with a few more years of experience than he had.

After a spell as a feature writer in Manchester he was brought back to London where he was the youngest feature writer on the staff. Then came a call from Hugh Cudlipp that he wanted a youthful writer for a special job. Cudlipp wanted a series about the decent things some young Britons were doing to balance the adverse publicity Mods and Rockers were creating in the newspapers.

John answered the call. He sent Cudlipp a memo that was a masterpiece. With just the right touch of sycophancy, John flattered Cudlipp on the brilliance of his idea, went on to suggest with infective enthusiasm an opening to the series wrapping up a few examples of home-grown youthful achievements, then suggested the main thrust of the series should be a world tour of the remote parts of the planet where the British Voluntary Youth Organisation were doing great works.

Cudlipp got the memo and was impressed by John’s boldness and he
could instantly smell an award-winning series. He gave the go ahead and so John passed into Fleet Street legend.”

One final Pilger anecdote. Once, it was said, Pilger had a house in Tuscany and invited some friends round for lunch. One of the guests sipped a glass of vino and said to Pilger: ‘Where does this wine come from?”
Pilger gestured grandly to his estate. ‘From the bottom of my garden,’he said.

Said the guest: “Doesn’t travel very well, does it?”

Unlike the great Mr Pilger.

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