Interview with John Pilger
The Progressive, November 2002 issue
By David Barsamian
Corporate journalism in the United States preaches "objectivity" and scorns those who take the side of the dispossessed and disenfranchised. But the mainstream media in Britain makes a few allowances. John Pilger, the Australian-born, London-based journalist and filmmaker, is one.
"I grew up in Sydney in a very political household," Pilger told me, "where we were all for the underdog." His father was a Wobbly, a member of the Industrial Workers of the World. Like Orwell, whom he admires, Pilger has a direct style. For example, he uses the term "imperialism" and does not hesitate to attach it to the adjective "American."
He was a featured speaker at the mass peace rally in London on September 28. He told the crowd, estimated at between 150,000 and 350,000, "Today a taboo has been broken. We are the moderates. Bush and Blair are the extremists. The danger for all of us is not in Baghdad but in Washington." And he applauded the protesters. "Democracy," he told them, "is not one obsessed man using the power of kings to attack another country in our name. Democracy is not siding with Ariel Sharon, a war criminal, in order to crush Palestinians. Democracy is this great event today representing the majority of the people of Great Britain.
"For his reporting, Pilger has twice won the highest award in British journalism. His latest book is The New Rulers of the World (Verso, 2002). His political films include Paying the Price: Killing the Children of Iraq, Death of a Nation: East Timor, The New Rulers of the World, and Palestine Is Still the Issue. These documentaries are shown all over Britain, Canada, Australia, and much of the rest of the world but are rarely seen in the United States. PBS, the Public Broadcasting Service, which has seemingly unlimited space to air specials on animals, can't seem to find a spot for Pilger's work.
"The censorship is such on television in the U.S. that films like mine don't stand a chance," he told me, and he illustrated this point with the following anecdote. Some years ago, PBS expressed interest in one of his films on Cambodia, but it was concerned about the content. In something out of Orwell's Ministry of Truth, the network appointed what it called a "journalistic adjudicator" to decide whether the film was worthy of airing. The adjudicator adjudicated. The film did not air. PBS also rejected another film on Cambodia that he did. But WNET in New York picked it up--the only station in the country to do so. On the basis of that one showing, Pilger was awarded an Emmy.
I called him at his home in London the day before he spoke at the huge peace rally.
Question: Is the war on terrorism a new version of the white man's burden?
John Pilger: Classic nineteenth century European imperialists believed they were literally on a mission. I don't believe that the imperialists these days have that same sense of public service. They are simply pirates. Yes, there are fundamentalists, Christian fundamentalists, who appear to be in charge of the White House at the moment, but they are very different from the Christian gentlemen who ran the British Empire and believed they were doing good works around the world. These days it's about naked power.
Q: Why do you say that?
Pilger: The attack on Iraq has been long planned. There just hasn't been an excuse for it. Since George H.W. Bush didn't unseat Saddam in 1991, there's been a longing among the extreme right in the United States to finish the job. The war on terrorism has given them that opportunity. Even though the logic is convoluted and fraudulent, it appears they are going to go ahead and finish the job.
Q: Why is Tony Blair such an enthusiastic supporter of U.S. policy?
Pilger: We have an extreme rightwing government in this country, although it's called the Labour government. That's confused a lot of people, but it's confusing them less and less. The British Labour Party has always had a very strong "Atlanticist component," with an obsequiousness to American policies, and Blair represents this wing. He's clearly obsessed with Iraq. He has to be because the overwhelming majority of the people of Britain oppose a military action. I've never known a situation like it. To give you one example, The Daily Mirror polled its readers and 90 percent were opposed to an attack on Iraq. Overall, opinion polls in this country are running at about 70 percent against the war. Blair is at odds with the country.
Q: In your new book, you talk about the group around Bush that is essentially forming war policy, people like Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. You single out Richard Perle, who was Assistant Secretary of Defense in Reagan's Pentagon. You highlighted his comment "This is total war."
Pilger: I interviewed Perle when he was buzzing around the Reagan Administration in the 1980s, and I was struck by how truly fanatical this man was. He was then voicing the views of total war. All of Bush's extremism comes from the Reagan years. That's why people like Perle, Wolfowitz, and other refugees from that period have found favor again. I singled out Perle in the book because I thought he rather eloquently described the policies of the Bush regime. September 11 has given these people, this clique, an opportunity from heaven. They never really believed they would have the legitimacy to do what they are doing. They don't, of course, have legitimacy because most of the world is opposed to what they are doing. But they believe it has given them if not a legitimacy then a constituency in the United States.
Q: They are also part of an Administration that came to power under shady circumstances.
Pilger: I don't regard them as an elected group. It's quite clear that Gore won most of the votes. I think the accurate description for them is a military plutocracy. Having lived and worked in the United States, I must add that I don't want to make too much of the distinction between the Bush regime and its predecessors. I don't see a great deal of difference. Clinton kept funding Star Wars. He took the biggest military budget to Congress in history. He routinely bombed Iraq, and he kept the barbaric sanctions in place. He's really played his part. The Bush gang has taken it just a little further.
Q: At least on the level of rhetoric, it seems that the top officials of the Bush Administration are much more bellicose. They've taken their gloves off. They speak in extreme language: "You're either with us or you're with the terrorists."
Pilger: We're grateful to them because they've made it very clear to other people just how dangerous they are. Before, Clinton persuaded some people that he was really a civilized character and his Administration had the best interests of humanity at heart. These days we don't have to put up with that nonsense. It's very clear that the Bush Administration is out of control. It contains some truly dangerous people.
Q: How do you assess U.S. policy toward Israel?
Pilger: Israel is the American watchdog in the Middle East, and that's why the Palestinians remain victims of one of the longest military occupations. They don't have oil. If they were the Saudis, they wouldn't be in the position they are now. But they have the power of being able to upset the imperial order in the Middle East. Certainly, until there is justice for the Palestinians, there will never be any kind of stability in the Middle East. I'm absolutely convinced of that. Israel is the representative of the United States in that part of the world. Its policies are so integrated with American policies that they use the same language. If you read Sharon's statements and Bush's statements, they're virtually identical.
Q: You write for the Mirror, the British tabloid with a circulation of two million plus. How did you get that job?
Pilger: I wrote for the Mirror for twenty years. I joined it back in the 1960s when I arrived from Australia. You don't really have anything like the Mirror--as it was, and as it is trying to be again--in the United States. The Mirror is a left-leaning tabloid. It's really a traditional supporter of the Labour Party in this country. I suppose its politics are center-left. During the time I was there, it was very adventurous politically. It reported many parts of the world from the point of view of victims of wars. I reported Vietnam for many years for the Mirror. In those days, it played a central role in the political life of this country. It then fell into a long, rather terrible period, trying to copy its Murdoch rival, The Sun, and just became a trashy tabloid.
Since September 11, the Mirror has reached back to its roots, and decided, it seems, to be something of its old self again. I received a call asking if I would write for it again, which I've done. It's a pleasure to be able to do that. It's become an important antidote to a media that is, most of it, supportive of the establishment, some of it quite rabidly rightwing. The Mirror is breaking ranks, and that's good news.
Q: In one of your articles, you called the United States "the world's leading rogue state." This incurred the wrath of The Washington Times, which is owned by the Moonies. They called your paper "a shrill tabloid read by soccer hooligans." Your fellow Australian Rupert Murdoch, owner of The New York Post, called the Mirror a "terrorist-loving London tabloid."
Pilger: There's one correction I want to make there. Murdoch is not a fellow Australian. He's an American.
Q: But he was born in Australia.
Pilger: No, he's an American. He gave up his Australian citizenship in order to buy television stations in the United States, which is symptomatic of the way Murdoch operates. Everything is for sale, including his birthright. The Mirror is not read by soccer hooligans. It's read by ordinary people of this country. That comment is simply patronizing. But to be criticized by the Moonies and Murdoch in one breath is really just a fine moment for me.
Q: In George Orwell's essay "Politics and the English Language," he describes the centrality of language in framing and informing debate. He was particularly critical of the use of euphemisms and the passive voice, so today we have "collateral damage," "free trade," and "level playing fields," and such constructions as "villages were bombed," and "Afghan civilians were killed." You compare the rhetoric surrounding the war on terrorism to the kind of language Orwell criticized.
Pilger: Orwell is almost our litmus test. Some of his satirical writing looks like reality these days. When you have someone like Cheney who talks about "endless war" or war that might last fifty years, he could be Big Brother. You have Bush incessantly going on about the evil ones. Who are these evil ones? In 1984, the evil one was called Goldstein. Orwell was writing a grim parody. But these people running the United States mean what they say. If I were a teacher, I would recommend that all my students very hurriedly read most of Orwell's books, especially 1984 and Animal Farm, because then they'd begin to understand the world we live in.
Q: And the use of passive voice?
Pilger: Using the passive voice is always very helpful. Mind you, a lot of that propaganda English emanates from here. The British establishment has always used the passive voice. It's been a weapon of discourse so those who committed terrible acts in the old empire could not be identified. Or, today, the British establishment uses "the royal we," as in, "We think this." You hear a lot of that these days. It erroneously suggests that those who are making the decisions to bomb countries, to devastate economies, to take part in acts of international piracy involve all of us.
Q: What's wrong with journalism today?
Pilger: Many journalists now are no more than channelers and echoers of what Orwell called the official truth. They simply cipher and transmit lies. It really grieves me that so many of my fellow journalists can be so manipulated that they become really what the French describe as fonctionnaires, functionaries, not journalists.
Many journalists become very defensive when you suggest to them that they are anything but impartial and objective. The problem with those words "impartiality" and "objectivity" is that they have lost their dictionary meaning. They've been taken over. "Impartiality" and "objectivity" now mean the establishment point of view. Whenever a journalist says to me, "Oh, you don't understand, I'm impartial, I'm objective," I know what he's saying. I can decode it immediately. It means he channels the official truth. Almost always. That protestation means he speaks for a consensual view of the establishment. This is internalized. Journalists don't sit down and think, "I'm now going to speak for the establishment." Of course not. But they internalize a whole set of assumptions, and one of the most potent assumptions is that the world should be seen in terms of its usefulness to the West, not humanity. This leads journalists to make a distinction between people who matter and people who don't matter. The people who died in the Twin Towers in that terrible crime mattered. The people who were bombed to death in dusty villages in Afghanistan didn't matter, even though it now seems that their numbers were greater. The people who will die in Iraq don't matter. Iraq has been successfully demonized as if everybody who lives there is Saddam Hussein. In the build-up to this attack on Iraq, journalists have almost universally excluded the prospect of civilian deaths, the numbers of people who would die, because those people don't matter.
It's only when journalists understand the role they play in this propaganda, it's only when they realize they can't be both independent, honest journalists and agents of power, that things will begin to change.
David Barsamian, director of Alternative Radio in Boulder, Colorado, is the author of "The Decline and Fall of Public Broadcasting" (South End Press). His last interview for The Progressive was with Kevin Phillips in the September issue.