Vested Interests

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Review of 'Tell Me No Lies', editor John Pilger, Jonathan Cape £20

Paul Foot died as this book was about to go to press, so it is a fitting tribute that one of the reporter's long-running campaigns is featured here, in a collection compiled by John Pilger as a 'call to arms' for others to keep alive the craft of investigative journalism.

For 12 years Foot doggedly followed the quest for justice in the aftermath of the Lockerbie bomb - and reported the eventual conviction of a Libyan intelligence agent to be a whitewash orchestrated by the British and US governments. Foot scented the whiff of a cover-up at the highest level. His campaigning zeal, in report after report for the Daily Mirror and Private Eye, is captured perfectly in this book, which features the work of almost 30 journalists who exposed truths that those in authority wished to keep secret.

Some extracts are from the journalists' own books, retrospectively pulling together various reports into single articles.

Martha Gellhorn, the world's first accredited female war correspondent, writes about entering the Nazi death camp at Dachau on the day of liberation to find living 'skeletons' with faces of 'yellowish, stubby skin, stretched across bone', records of the most grotesque experiments carried out on Jews, and a crematorium where naked dead bodies were piled up inside the oven room ready to be burned.

Such eyewitness reporting is often critical to the recording of history, and Pilger states at the outset his belief that it should be considered, alongside 'detective work', within the definition of 'investigative journalism', a term that has been coined only in the past 40 years.

His fellow Australian, Wilfred Burchett, practised this when he left behind US press minders in Japan to report the effects of radiation on human beings after the first atomic bomb was dropped, on Hiroshima.

Going against the grain often takes great courage and risks vilification, as experienced by James Cameron when he became the first westerner to report from the North during the US's war in Vietnam, and by radio broadcaster Ed Murrow for his repeated attacks on anti-Communist witchhunter Senator Joseph McCarthy.

One of the most important pieces of investigative reporting in these pages is Guardian journalist Seumas Milne's forensic destruction of the accusation that miners' leader Arthur Scargill misused union funds during the 1984-85 strike. This highlights the need to investigate smears posing as 'investigative journalism', which in this case proved to be a campaign by the media and government, with dirty tricks courtesy of the security services.

Pilger's selection is brought up to date with coverage of Iraq that countered the pro-war stance of most of the media. Robert Fisk, Richard Norton-Taylor and Felicity Arbuthnot are among the reporters whose work is reproduced, shining like a beacon in a very dark sky.

But such reporting is difficult for journalists working on pro-establishment newspapers, and not necessarily attractive to news organisations under pressure to make money. I recall Tom Bower, who in two books exposed the many crimes of Robert Maxwell, describing it as 'an expensive, frustrating and lonely chore', and often unproductive.

It also occurs to me that some important revelations fail to become part of the 'accepted' version of history. How many people, for instance, still believe that Libya was behind the Lockerbie bomb?

My own book about film director Ken Loach revealed the truth behind the censorship of his documentary series Questions of Leadership, which gave trade union members the opportunity to call their leaders to account.

It was banned by Central Independent Television, after one of its directors, Robert Maxwell, mounted a campaign against it. He was buying Mirror Group Newspapers and needed the cooperation of union leaders, especially the electricians' union.

It was the most sinister case of censorship in British commercial television and another example of Maxwell's crookedness, but not one national newspaper was interested in reporting this revelation. Central's managing director of the time, Bob Phillis, who was party to the board's decision, is now chief executive of the Guardian Media Group and was recently knighted, following his chairmanship of an independent inquiry into the government's relations with the media.

More than 400 years after the first battles for the freedom of the press were fought, 'free journalism' is at its most vulnerable to subversion from the state, other powerful vested interests and public relations companies, writes Pilger.

Tell Me No Lies proves to be not only a tribute to those who devote themselves to investigative journalism, but a sweeping panorama of recent history. Ultimately, though, this book is a lament to a dying craft. How could it be otherwise when, as Pilger points out, the world's principal media are owned by nine transnational companies and, in his native Australia, Rupert Murdoch controls 70 percent of newspaper circulation? The 'medley of competing voices', once the hallmark of the Australian press, is now, declares Pilger, an 'echo chamber'. Throughout the 'free' world, what might once have been regarded as the routine job of a journalist is now called investigative journalism, and any journalist who goes against the grain is an exception.