The fight for principled journalism

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Despite claims of impartiality, journalists are often subservient to the needs of the rich and powerful. John Pilger spoke to Patrick Ward about the media, power and his new film The War You Don't See.


John Pilger

What is the war you don't see?

It's the news of war that is censored by omission, by distortion and fabrication. This is not new. The last British war completely free of censorship was waged in the Crimea in the 19th century, which produced one of the greatest pieces of independent war reporting: William Howard Russell's exposé of the disaster of the Charge of the Light Brigade. For this, he was denounced by Queen Victoria as "that man" and he and his editor at the Times, John Delane, were accused of treason. Since then the collusion between journalists and the state in wartime has been routine.

With honourable individual exceptions, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan are prime examples. What the film demonstrates is that had the media, especially the US media, challenged and exposed the deceptions that led to the invasion of Iraq, the invasion might not have happened - that's the view, for example, of Dan Rather, the famous CBS television anchor, who is a witness in the film.

In the new film you explore the history of the media's relationship with dominant powers. In what way has this changed and why?

It has not changed, in essence. Edmund Burke's "fourth estate" was all very well, but it was a romantic, liberal notion of an independent press checking the excesses of the executive and parliament. In truth, the media is an extension of the establishment. And the reporting of wars reflects that vividly.

In The War You Don't See there is a sequence of BBC commentators lauding Tony Blair's "vindication" on the night of the assault on Iraq in March 2003. Andrew Marr could barely contain his effusive admiration of Blair who, he said, had been correct in predicting there would be no "bloodbath". As many as a million deaths later, it was perhaps no surprise that I received no response from Marr when I asked him for an interview.

Many of the journalists you interview in The War You Don't See, such as Rather and Rageh Omaar, are very open and almost apologetic about their past compliance with the agenda of imperialism. Was it difficult to persuade them to participate in the film?

To their credit, they agreed readily to be in the film. I got the impression they welcomed the opportunity to reflect on the coverage and what might have been.

Your interviews with the spokespeople for BBC News and ITN were fascinating insights into the attitudes of television newsrooms over issues like Iraq and the Israeli attack on the Gaza aid flotilla. What did their reactions tell you about the way they operate?

I was left in little doubt that the main source of daily broadcast news was authority, such as government spin taken at face value. If Blair said that Britain was in Iraq and Afghanistan to "build" democracy, then it was true. The ITV view was more confused. ITV - or ITN as it was known - is not as institutionally political as the BBC.

Did any of the interviews you conducted surprise you?

I was certainly heartened that numerous insiders - from journalists to the former Foreign Office official Carne Ross - were prepared to talk as openly as they did.

You have been a vocal supporter of Julian Assange and Wikileaks, and speak to him in your film. What is the significance of this latest round of leaks?

Well, these leaks are telling us how a rapacious power likes to run the world - how the US intervenes, as if by divine right, in the public life of almost every country on earth. Crucially, we have learned that Saudi Arabia - along with Israel, of course - is the true source of the West's problems in the Middle East, and that the US mania with Iran is really about historical revenge.

The reaction to the leaks by the US and other governments has been to blame the leakers and publishers for putting lives in danger, culminating in Assange's arrest for an entirely separate allegation. What does this tell us about "free speech"?

In the land of Thomas Jefferson and the First Amendment, the attorney-general of the United States is currently hard at work inventing a law by which he can prosecute Assange for upholding Jefferson's principle of freedom of speech and the free flow of information. The elite across the Atlantic ensure that freedom of speech, indeed democracy itself, is a pretence. They actually hate real democracy, which has been overwhelmed by corporate power and by a stupefying "culture" and public relations.

The notion of public relations as a means of manipulating a society is quintessentially American. The term was invented by Edward Bernays, a confidant of President Woodrow Wilson, as a euphemism for propaganda, by which to manipulate public opinion and stifle free speech.

You tackle Barack Obama's drift from candidate to president and his escalation of imperial wars. Could this have been any other way?

There was no "drift". Obama was always a political opportunist, a product of Chicago's Democratic Party machine, beholden to corporate interests. He was never anti-war; he was never truly populist. He was, as Bernays would have said, a creation of PR: a "false reality". He was Brand Obama: nothing more. Those who swooned, especially those on "the left", might reflect on this.

In Britain the student movement has grown like wildfire. Are you hopeful about the future of resistance against the Tories?

The student uprising is one of the most exciting developments in my recent lifetime. I was in Vietnam when I turned on the news and saw the attack on Tory party headquarters. I stood and cheered. However, there must soon be a connection with others; the students must not be left to resist alone.

Your first television work was on ITV's World in Action in 1970. How were you able to produce such uncompromising reporting in the mainstream? Could this happen today?

Nothing is achieved without determination and a fight. I hope The War You Don't See encourages other film makers to stand by their work. This is often very difficult for young documentary makers, but these days they have the web with its vast audience. Look at the worldwide support for and defence of Wikileaks. There is no point in being despondent - the times are changing fast.

Every year now sees a generation of journalism graduates failing to find work in the media. What would you say to young people who want to enter journalism to hold power to account?

I would say that the BBC and the Murdoch press are not for you. Become a freelance; maintain your independence and, above all, your principles. Remember that journalism is a privilege and that you are an agent of ordinary people, not of those who seek to control them. Journalism is about humanity, and your responsibility is to report the world from the ground up, not the other way round.


John Pilger: At a glance

  • Born 9 October 1939 in Sydney, Australia.

  • John Pilger has made dozens of documentary films, but started his TV work for ITV's World in Action. Vietnam - the Quiet Mutiny, in 1971, established his name as an investigative journalist, revealing the full level of discontent of US soldiers stationed in Vietnam. In 1979 he brought international attention to the 1970 US bombing of Cambodia, and the subsequent horror of Khmer Rouge brutality in Year Zero: The Silent Death of Cambodia. Other notable films include Nicaragua: A Nation's Right to Survive (1983), Death of a Nation: The Timor Conspiracy (1994) and Palestine is Still the Issue (2002).

  • Pilger started as a print journalist, working for the Daily and Sunday Telegraph in Sydney from 1958. He has worked as a journalist for publications including the Daily Mirror, the Guardian, the Independent, New Statesman, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Nation and the Sydney Morning Herald.

  • He has also written several books, including Heroes (1986), Hidden Agendas (1998), The New Rulers of the World (2002) and Freedom Next Time (2006).