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January 2, 2024

John Pilger praised and pilloried following death aged 84

John Pilger's reporting on Cambodia had a huge international impact.

By Dominic Ponsford

Prolific documentary filmmaker and journalist John Pilger has been both praised and pilloried after his death aged 84.

The Guardian obituary offers an extensive review of his life’s work, which included fearless foreign reporting and championing of the rights of oppressed people.

His most famous achievement was his 1979 front-page report for the Daily Mirror headlined “Death of a Nation”, which revealed that possibly two million people out of a population of seven million in Cambodia had been victims of genocide and starvation under dictator Pol Pot.

The Guardian notes that Pilger’s reporting helped prompt more than $45m in relief to be raised for the country.

Pilger joined the Daily Mirror during its golden age as a campaigning popular tabloid under chairman Hugh Cudlipp in 1963 (before it was eclipsed by Murdoch’s Sun in the 1970s).

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He was twice named journalist of the year in the British Press Awards, in 1967 and 1979.

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He has been widely praised as an influential and brave investigative journalist.

But he was also seen by some as a propagandist who sought out facts to back up pre-determined narratives.

Famously in 1982 he wrote about how he had bought an eight-year-old girl in Bangkok, exposing a modern slave trade.

Although the wider issue was correct, as The Times obit explains, it turned out Pilger had been duped by his fixer and the girl and her mother were paid to play a part.

Pilger’s anti-American views led him to adopt a pro-Russian stance when it came to the war in Ukraine.

In a 2006 interview with Press Gazette, Pilger said it was a myth to suggest that journalists could be unbiased.

“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.”

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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