Coming fourth in a New Statesman poll to find the 50 heroes of all time is in keeping with John Pilger’s belief that it is not the powerful or even colleagues in the media whose views he should be concerned with, but the ordinary people he writes about — and those who watch his films and read his books and journalism.
When Pilger opens the door of his house close to Clapham Common wearing tracksuit bottoms and a fleece jacket, there is little in his manner to make you feel it is any big deal talking to the man who is considered only less a hero than Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela and Bob Geldof.
After he makes coffee, Pilger settles on the sofa in the comfortable lounge and says his biggest concern is that the poll has meant he has been sandwiched between Geldof and Margaret Thatcher — who was voted fifth. “It’s put me in an unusual position,” says Pilger, who was nominated in recognition of his investigative and campaigning journalism and was one of just two journalists who made it into the top 50 — the other was Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian who was commended for being “brave enough to report the realities of war in Chechnya”.
Pilger, who speaks quietly with a still strong Australian accent, was commended by one reader for “regularly and willingly exposing himself to mockery and vilification by those who lack his principles and moral courage” and, to put it crudely, for “having more balls than the rest of the Fourth Estate put together”. He work for the Daily Mirror between 1963 and 1986 and won numerous awards for his journalism. Since his first war assignment in Vietnam in 1967, he has been fiercely critical of Western governments and their foreign policies. He has been a vocal opponent of sanctions against Iraq and the subsequent invasion of that country.
Pilger, who returned to the Mirror for 18 months under Piers Morgan’s editorship is also frequently critical of the media for following government agendas and swallowing their lines about “good and bad tyrants, and worthy and unworthy victims who present ‘our’ policies as always benign when the opposite is usually true”.
He picks up both themes again in his most recent book, Freedom Next Time, published this week. In it he writes about several countries that he has worked in over they years, including India, Palestine and South Africa. The book sets out to describe how people in these countries have glimpsed freedom, only to see it taken away.
The centrepiece is a chapter on Palestine. In it he recounts the incident when Michael Green, a Jewish chairman of Carlton, criticised a documentary that was broadcast in 2002 called Palestine Is Still the Issue. In it he describes an email campaign against him and concludes that many journalists could not fail to be influenced by such an onslaught of protest that included threats to his family. The Independent Television Commission, which was then regulator for TV, finally cleared the programme in 2003 and rejected all complaints.
Pilger’s conclusion about the episode echoes his continued optimism in people who took to the streets to protest against the Iraq invasion on 16 February 2003. Despite the fact that Carlton showed the programme at 11pm, more than 1.5 million watched it — a sign, he insists, that “people are interested in more than just watching Big Brother”.
“People on the internet are shaming journalists”
If you take the reporting of Iraq, the best reporting has been on the internet.
If you go online you can read someone like Dahr Jamail — he’s a Lebanese American who speaks Arabic — and he has been reporting on the net since the invasion. He’s the one I turn to because he reported from inside Fallujah, where journalists either don’t go or go with the American army or the British.
Another I used in the book I edited last year about investigative journalism, Tell me no Lies, one of the non-journalists was a young British woman called Jo Wilding. At the time she was just filing. She was living with a family in Baghdad and then was in Fallujah and she was just filing every day. It was some of the most seering eye-witness journalism I have ever read. It told me what was happening in the country.
Can you imagine hearing “Here is the news, children are being starved in Palestine”, or “Here is the news, the state of Iraqi children is worse than it was under Saddam Hussein”?
Both those are true, but we are never going to hear that because the way it is reported in the mainstream is skewed towards the idea that it is a civil war, that the Iraqis are all fighting each other and that the occupiers are only really crisis managers.
“A lot of blogging can be nerdish”
It was a couple of bloggers who finally got into American documents and got an admission from the US that they were using chemical weapons in Fallujah.
I have got some criticisms about blogging. A lot of it can be simply nerdish, but informed blogging can be really wonderful diary journalism.
It is the people who are doing the equivalent of journalism on the net who I admire. When I get up in the morning, instead of picking up a newspaper, I will log on and go through a whole series of sites for the best or relevant journalism on particular issues across the world. I will download those, then I will go and look at the paper. That change of habit as a journalist is quite interesting to me.
“Bloggers are battering down the doors of the club”
The defensiveness of journalists is quite something to behold. How dare the public challenge us rather than writing a polite letter to The Guardian for it to be edited and published if they are lucky? They can now say what they think. Alright, some of it, if it is simply invective or abuse, is worthless. But the way some leading journalists have reacted to factual meticulous analysis is quite revealing.
“The best journalists are troublemakers”
Too often the media follows the official agenda – and it has got worse under the Blair government. I think that’s because they have been clever at creating agendas. I think it has possibly always been like that, but in the mainstream of the British press there has also always been space for mavericks. Perhaps I am thinking back to more benign days before corporate journalism was invented, but the great mavericks produced the great scoops. They followed the dictum of Claud Cockburn, who himself was a great maverick: never believe anything until it’s officially denied.
They were sceptical of authority and power, not of people — they had quite a strong connection to their readers. Now it has turned around the other way. You find young journalists who have left media college and are going on to a major newspaper or the BBC, and
they believe that to be sceptical or even cynical about their readers’ views or listeners somehow ordains them as a journalist. And it doesn’t.
The very thing they ought to be sceptical about — and that is power — is not part of their practice. It is because lobby journalism is so dominant. Pages and pages are devoted to pirouettes between two men who are political twins, Blair and Brown. The public don’t give a fig, but pages are devoted to it because lobby journalists are so dominant. The Independent, when it started, bravely refused to be part of the lobby system, but then went back into it. But I wonder if they lost much, if they missed any critical stories? I doubt it.
“It’s the great myth that journalists are not biased”
Everyone has a view, even if it is an establishment view — and perhaps that’s the most powerful view of all. They go to Iraq with a deeply embedded view, but claim they don’t. If you suggest to some journalists that they can’t be neutral they will look puzzled and say: “But I’m not biased.” But you say to them: “Well excuse me but you have had the kind of equivalent of a lobotomy since you first went to school.” The BBC can be quite crude in its bias – in Palestine it has been. But in other ways it is insidious. I turned on the news the other night and there was another Blair stunt being made into a major news item. Blair goes to Baghdad, which is welcomed by more carnage in the streets of Baghdad, so there is a whole major item about Blair heroically striding across the tarmac and the reporter refers to the Anglo-American project in Iraq. That’s what they used to refer to the New Labour project. This is a completely illegal, rapacious occupation and he refers to it as a project. And that flies under the flag of neutrality. The BBC mythology is very powerful.
But so much of it is just bunkum.
It is fond of saying that it is in the middle so it gets it from both sides. But is it really in the middle and does it really get it from both sides?
“This book has had a long gestation”
I wanted to write a book that was about South Africa only after I went back in 1998. I wanted to write a history and bring in my own experience as a reporter because I first went there a long time ago — in 1966.
I aimed to write a history and write about my experiences. But that was such a major project.
The idea developed in my mind. I decided on the title and then thought it could cover other areas as well. I’d also been thinking for a long time about writing a book about Palestine. But that seemed so daunting — so the centrepiece of this book is the chapter on Palestine.
“I was writing right up to deadline”
I write books like newspaper articles. It drives the publishers crazy, but that’s the agreement I have with the publishers — that it has to be up to the minute.
“At one time I might have been vilified by the press”
When I was writing earlier on in my career I had various right-wing nemeses in the media who enjoyed taking apart my pieces. But they retired or died or went into PR. I don’t take much notice of them any more.
Journalists should repeat to themselves everyday: “I am an agent of people, not of the powerful.”
“The failure of the media has been to follow the consensual line”
It hasn’t told the truth, or hasn’t been consistent in telling the truth regarding different situations around the world. That is evident in Palestine, where we have seen Palestine become the unworthy victim and Israel has become the worthy victim. Palestinians are rarely represented as victims who we can empathise with.
They are almost always represented as terrorists.
There are some worthy exceptions — Jeremy Bowen has an honourable record and Robert Fisk, who I think has come in for all sorts of unjustified criticism because he has pointed out that there is structural abuse, and Tim Llewellyn, the former BBC correspondent has written very eloquently about the issue.
“The sustained lobbying by the Israeli lobby does work”
I’ve received death threats before, it is an occupational hazard, but in the case of Palestine is Still the Issue there were threats to my family and it was relentless. It was a generic campaign — some of the emails were from places where no one could have seen the film — I got emails by the dozen from places like South Africa and Texas.
The sustained lobbying does make a difference to how journalists approach Palestine and Israel. There’s no doubt about it. With email it means that a tsunami of emails arrives. I don’t think the ITC should have investigated it, but they did. For the best part of six months Chris Martin, my producer, and I had to justify every frame of film. We wrote this huge document, it was like a thesis. It took up a lot of our time but I was determined to see them off.
“Journalists have to accept that governments lie”
I went to a conference recently about war reporting and most of it was around the numbers of journalists who had been killed. Quite rightly we should be concerned about that, but it is become a recurring theme. It is a good one, yes. But we should first of all ask why and then ask what’s the role of journalists in their embedded state?
The Iraq war started because the deceptions and lies, which are now proven, were amplified and echoed by journalists. They weren’t challenged.
Some were challenged, but not overall. The “45 minutes” headlines were the best example.
It is journalists coming to terms with something that has always been true — and that is that governments lie and fabricate. It is what great mavericks like IF Stone (Izzy Stone) used to write about — about governments telling lies. This government has lied in the most outlandish way — if you can lie outlandishly, it has done it.
There is no doubt that in the build up to the Iraq invasion the media followed that pattern of fabrication. So that’s the question. What’s our role?
A lot of journalists might say, ‘I work in an institution or a big corporation, I’m only one, what can I do?
I have to go along with this consensus.’ Even that, even recognising that there is a consensus is step one. Step two is that individual journalists can do quite a lot. They can refuse to do it.
“Censorship in wartime is nothing new… journalists were embedded in the First World War”
The fact that the media has never been more powerful is acknowledged by all the extraordinary efforts that governments go to in order to try and subvert it. If you read Philip Knightley’s excellent book about war reporting you see nothing is new, the last British war reported without censorship was the Crimea. The difference now is that the technology is instantaneous and the reporter has such pressure on him or her to get an instant story that can then be broadcast almost instantly, and there is so much of it, it is almost saturation. The Pentagon invented the embedding system in the First World War. They fear the kind of reaction we had on 15 February 2003 when millions of people went into the streets, or they fear opinion polls.
“The biggest threats to journalism today are PR and sponsorship” The insidious influence on journalism is coming from PR, it is coming from sponsors. Journalists need to be aware of the effect public relations and sponsorship in all its forms is having on journalism. That is what’s new today.
Maybe it is not so much war by media as war by sponsored media. There always has been sponsorship, but it is more clever today.
“Journalism is about looking behind facades and not accepting the consensus view or official version of events”
It is about not accepting the official version of history. There is a facade to Australia and behind it is a rapacious history, especially with regard to the Aborigines. There is a campaign now in the Australian media about domestic violence among Aborigines. It is so hypocritical. This is a country that has had a big relationship with alcohol and domestic violence. I know it. But they are using that as another stick with which to beat the Aborigines, which is quite shameful.
“It seemed there was a trend towards showing documentaries in cinemas”
That’s what I thought. There was Michael Moore, which was a phenomenon, and Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me, which was a big box office success — so there are more documentaries in the cinema.
But it is not quite as easy as you imagine.
POWER OF THE PEOPLE
The story I am most proud of
I am always careful about transferring pride to myself, rather than leaving it with the people who have allowed me into their lives. Certainly, I drew great satisfaction from the sheer impact of my Cambodia documentary and the reports in the Mirror, which together raised more than $45 million unsolicited, an enormous sum in 1979. This, and the power of alerting much of the world to the tragedy in Cambodia, doubtless helped save and revive many lives. I felt the same about the worldwide effects of the East Timor film. When it first went to air in Britain, it was followed by 4,000 calls per minute from viewers.
The story I have nightmares over
I had nightmares over a four-year campaign to include a forgotten group of Thalidomide-damaged children in the final settlement agreed in murky circumstances with the Distillers company, the maker of the drug in Britain. I had raised the hopes of several hundred families and a for a long time had nothing to offer them; then almost out of the blue the company settled.
The person I most admire
I wrote a book called Heroes. It is full of the people I most admire, my heroes. None of them are famous; almost all of them are ordinary people who achieved extraordinary things against the odds.