The View From The Ground
John Pilger Interviewed by Michael Albert
John Pilger: My journalism began in Australia when I started a newspaper at Sydney High School. It was called 'The Messenger' and I was 12 years old. Or perhaps it began a year or two earlier when I would get up before sunrise to deliver newspapers, only to be chastised by my employer for wasting his time reading them. Journalism certainly helped bring the world to me as I grew up; the antipodes is ruled by a tyranny of distance; I tried to imagine the rest of humanity so far away.
I grew up in Sydney, in what was then quite a poor industrial city, in a family that was considered "political": that is, we were "on the side of the underdog", as my mother would say. Australia was a society divided deeply by class, religion and silence, as Mark Twain recognised on one his visits. He described our colonial history as "like the most beautiful of lies". The indigenous people, the oldest continuous culture on earth, about whom almost no one spoke, did not exist; the likeness with South Africa was too disturbing.
My parents had grown up in the coalmining towns of the Hunter Valley in New South Wales. My father left school at 14 and worked in the mines. My mother was the only one of nine children to complete school; at 19 she became Australia's youngest graduate: a distinction she held for many years. They met at the Mechanics Institute in Sydney (similar to the WEA); my mother would smuggle her young man into the newly-built university library, where they would read by candlelight. In his early twenties, my father was one of the founders of the IWW (the Wobblies) in Australia, though neither of my parents was doctrinaire; both became lifetime supporters of the Australian Labor Party, then a reformist social democratic party based on the trade unions. My father felt strongly about American cold war influence on our lives. He would emerge from watching a movie at the local picture house saying, 'Why do we get only American propaganda?' It was a good question. Kids of my age were on a drip feed of John Wayne and the cold war. My parents' influence on me was a counter to this; I was proud of our often unspoken ethos and I was sad when they drifted acrimoniously apart.
I would escape to the Pacific ocean, down the hill, where I was taught to swim by one of Australia's greatest swimming coaches, Sep Prosser, an exotic character who would dive with his girlfriend from precarious rockfaces into the boiling surf of Bondi Beach; I think my father paid for my lessons as Sep's bookie. Swimming has since been a staple of my life; I think and write as a I swim.
I joined the cadet journalism training scheme of the Sydney Daily Telegraph. I realised later it was like walking on to the set of Lewis Milestone's version of The Front Page. People did shout, 'hold the front page', and wear loud ties and tilt back their felt hats in the newsroom; and you could feel the presses rumbling beneath you. It was very romantic, but with serious purpose. The Telegraph was owned by Frank Packer, a former boxer and thuggish political kingmaker who conducted unrelenting vendettas against almost anyone to the left of Pontius Pilate. (All so-called mainstream newspapers in Australia were, and still are right-wing; there is no choice). Still, the training was superb; a style developed by a highly literate former editor, Brian Penton, who had published poetry, forced you to consider the value of almost every word. Paragraphs could be no longer than sixteen words, and only the active voice was allowed. All adjectives and most cliches were banned (except, of course, those in the splenetic editorials). I learned to write fluent English then and many of the old grammatical strictures have stayed with me, for which I am grateful.
I was 22 when I boarded a rust-streaked Greek ship and sailed for Genova in Italy and eventually London, and Fleet Street, then the Mecca of newspapers. I worked in London for Reuters, then joined the Daily Mirror, at that time an extraordinary left-wing tabloid that had stood up to Churchill during the Second World War and played a critical role into bringing to power the Attlee Labour government to power in 1945, the most radically reforming British government in the modern era. The Mirror also opposed the 1956 Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt, which marked the coup de grace of the British Empire.
During the 1960s, the Mirror laid out a political map of the world for its millions of readers: then a quarter of the British population. Only the Peking Daily had more readers. (When much later I met Chou en-Lai in Peking, I mentioned this to him, to which he replied, "Ah, but we have a captive audience.")
I became chief foreign correspondent and had found my journalistic home. In 1967, across the front page, the Mirror carried the headline, "How can Britain support a war like this?" Beneath was my first dispatch from Vietnam. During the years of the civil rights movement and the anti Vietnam war movement, I was based in the US, often flying to and from Indochina. On one flight I read Noam Chomsky for the first time; I still recall the impact of his clear-sightedness and insight and mastery of contemporary history. I was fortunate to 'enter' American society through the eyes of those like Noam -- although we didn't meet until much later -- and the photographer Matt Herron and Jeannine Herron, freedom riders in the Deep South, with whom I worked. Martha Gellhorn once described people like them as "that life-saving minority of Americans who judge their government in moral terms. They are the people with a wakeful conscience, the best of America's citiizens ..."
This was a disturbing, yet thrilling time. As Noam pointed out, the margins of America expanded enough to threaten the rapacious ruling power.
I reported the Poor People's March to Washington, and the campaign of Eugene McCarthy and his 'children's crusade'. I was standing behind Robert Kennedy at the door of the kitchen of the Amabassador Hotel in Los Angeles when he was assassinated, having interviewed him two days earlier. I still recall the surreal shock and the sound of the shots. I thought Kennedy was a carpetbagger: a prototype for Barack Obama.
I have much to thank the US for my political education. I was watching some archive footage recently and caught sight of myself standing next to Vietnam veterans in Washington as they hurled their medals at the Capitol. It was 1970 or 1971. Many - like Bob Muller - became my friends; and it seemed appropriate that my first documentary film was "The Quiet Mutiny".
Filmed on firebases in Vietnam, it revealed a widespread insurrection among drafted troops, including the killing of unpopular officers. When it was broadcast in the UK, the US ambassador, Walter Annenberg, a friend of President Nixon, complained to the Independent Television Authority, the regulatory body, not that my facts were wrong but that I was clearly a communist. I have since made some 58 documentary films, including quite a few in Vietnam and Cambodia. The majority have been shown around the world, but not in the US; I am always bemused by the notion that speech is freest in the US. In 1980, PBS were on the verge of showing my first Cambodia film but decided they couldn't take the risk at the start of the Reagan presidency. The film described how the US bombing had served as a catalyst for the rise of the Khmer Rouge and suggested that the horror Nixon and Kissinger had begun was exploited by Pol Pot. The US didn't leave Cambodia alone even when the Vietnamese drove the Khmer Rouge to the Thai border in 1979. Reagan imposed one of America's sieges -- known as "sanctions" - on Cambodia, preventing any substantial rehabilitation reaching a stricken population. At the same time, British special forces - sent by Thatcher as part of a deal with Reagan – began secretly training the Khmer Rouge and its allies. Cambodia’s liberators, the Vietnamese, had come from the wrong side of the cold war and were never forgiven for driving the US out of their country. The exclusion of this work from the US is an interesting history of censorship.
2. How do you think of the two types of focus and their relations? Is it just a different delivery system - but otherwise one endeavor, or are the differences greater than that? What is good journalism, in your view - what is it you are trying to do?
Good journalism is good journalism regardless of the form. Television is more immediate than print, and the web offers another kind of audience. Documentaries are journalistic essays which at their best unite words and pictures – as, say, Life Magazine, at its best, united reportage and still photographs. In all these forms the aim should be to find out as many facts and as much of the truth as possible. There’s no mystery. Yes, we all bring a personal perspective to work; that’s our human right. Mine is to be skeptical of those who seek to control us, indeed of all authority that isn’t accountable, and not to accept “official truths”, which are often lies. Journalism is or ought to be the agent of people, not power: the view from the ground.
3. Have you felt, over the years, that your efforts have had the effects you sought, and those hoped for? If not, why do you think that is - and what might occur to increase the effects?
That’s often impossible to measure and, anyway, the aim of good journalism is or ought to be to give people the power of information – without which they cannot claim certain freedoms. It’s as straightforward as that. Now and then you do see the effects of a particular documentary or series of reports. In Cambodia, more than $50 million were given by the public, entirely unsolicited, following my first film; and my colleagues and I were able to use this to buy medical supplies, food and clothing. Several governments changed their policies as a result. Something similar happened following the showing of my documentary on East Timor – filmed, most of it, in secret. Following its broadcast in the UK, some 25,000 people called the ITV every minute, wanting to help and to know more. That was heartening, to say the least. Did it effect the situation in East Timor? No, but it did contribute to the long years of tireless work by people all over the world.
4. How has your media work been changed, or otherwise affected over the years, if at all, by the emergence of internet activity and, most recently, Google, Facebook, and Twitter? Do you see significant changes that affect the basic aims or methods of your own work - or that affect its effectivity? How do you assess the emergence of "social networking" and its impact on journalism and information flow?
I used to pick up a selection of newspapers every morning. Now I log on to the web. That’s the change. Google is remarkable, of course, but it’s not the same as the kind of research that will always require time and patience, and tenacious work. Twitter and Facebook are essentially about the “self”; they allow people to talk to themselves -- and often to make fools of themselves. Ironically, they can separate us even further from each other: enclose us in a bubble-world of smart phones, and fragmented information, and magpie commentary. Thinking is more fun, I think
5. As someone who has had considerable visibility in, but also steadfastly critiqued mainstream media for, I guess, decades, and has also been a very strong supporter and advocate for alternative media - what do you think we in alternative media have done wrong? Why haven't we built larger audiences and larger means of communications and outreach? Are there problems with our structures, policies, our content that might be corrected to yield better results?
I don’t agree with your premise. “Alternative” media has built audiences and reached out, and achieved extraordinary results. In Latin America, community radio has become a voice of people in the barrios. The propaganda that accused Hugo Chavez of attacking the “free” media in Venezuela (i.e. monopolies) ignored the fact that community radio had expanded as never before. There’s a similar situation in Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina. In the US, Pacifica Radio at its best is an inspiration. Take Dennis Bernstein’s programmes. On the web, your own ZNet reaches out, as does Tom Feeley’s Information Clearing House, and Truthout, and therealnews.com, and many more.
6. As you look forward, what do you think are the prospects for a more serious flow of critical, visionary, content to wide audiences? What steps do you think might permit and generate that either by an improved alternative media - or by a mainstream media forced to do better, even against its own purposes and logic?
The so-called mainstream media will never contradict its own logic. It is an extension of established authority; it is not, as Edmund Burke wanted us to believe: a “fourth estate”. But it’s not monolithic. I have worked all my career in the mainstream. I’ve done this by expending a huge amount of energy in maintaining my place, and fighting my corner. It has been often and literally a struggle, but in time I learned to navigate through and sometimes around institutions. Learning to navigate is critical for young, principled journalists.
What we need urgently is a “fifth estate” that challenges the autocracy of the corporate media, that includes and gives voice to the public, that mounts an invasion of institutions -- TV, newspapers, media colleges -- calling on journalists and their teachers to drop their defensiveness and promoting another way of seeing and working. In practical terms, we should be working to create publicly funded organisations that provide seed money to new, independent journalistic ventures. This has enjoyed success in Scandinavia.
7. As fast as everything changes, at one level, at another deeper level, yesterday seems to keep coming around. How would you describe the logic and scope of American Foreign policy - and also international relations more broadly - say, forty years ago, and now? Are there substantial differences?
I seldom use the almost respectable term, US foreign policy; US designs for the world is the correct term, surely. These designs have been running along a straight line since 1944 when the Bretton Woods conference ordained the US as the number one imperial power. The line has known occasional interruptions such as the retreat from Saigon and the triumph of the Sandinistas, but the designs have never changed. They are to dominate humanity. What has changed is that they are often disguised by the modern power of public relations, a term Edward Bernays invented during the first world war because “the Germans have given propaganda a bad name”.
With every administration, it seems, the aims are “spun” further into the realm of fantasy while becoming more and more extreme. Bill Clinton, still known by the terminally naive as a “progressive”, actually upped the ante on the Reagan administration, with the iniquities of NAFTA and assorted killing around the world. What is especially dangerous today is that the US’s wilfully and criminally collapsed economy (collapsed for ordinary people) and the unchallenged pre-eminence of the parasitical “defence” industries have followed a familiar logic that leads to greater militarism, bloodshed and economic hardship.
The current spoiling for a fight with China is a symptom of this, as is the invasion of Africa. That said, look back on the Eisenhower/Dulles years and the US elite was in a not dissimilar mood; only the presence of the Soviets held them back. I find it remarkable that I have lived my life without having been blown to bits in a nuclear holocaust ignited by Washington. What this tells me is that popular resistance across the rest of the world is potent and much feared by the bully – look at the hysterical pursuit of WikiLeaks. Or if not feared, it’s disorientating for the master. That’s why those of us who regard peace as a normal state of human affairs are in for a long haul, and faltering along the way is not an option, really.
8. As with trying to create an alternative to mainstream media, we have of course also sought to deter and finally replace the sources of war and inequality by aiding and participating in movements to that end. Here too, being objective about it, it seems we have less to show for four decades of effort than we expected and hoped for all along, certainly, and arguably than we might have achieved had we done better. If you agree, what do you think the anti war and anti imperialist movements you saw and aided over these years have been good at, and what do you think they have fallen short at, or even been quite poor at?
As mentioned, my political education was honed among the US anti-war people of the 1960s and 70s. I admired their imagination, resourcefulness and courage. Then the movement wilted, understandably. For at its heart had been the anti-draft movement: an essentially middle-class resistance to sending the “boys” to a war they and eventually their families didn’t like. When the war was over, the camaraderie of the anti-war veterans and others remained, but public support dissipated. This suggested that a political driver was missing -- unsurprisingly.
The difficulty in the US is that the principal political force is Americanism, an ideology that rarely speaks its intentions. It’s an exceptionalism, a mysticism, a hocus pocus of so-called patriotism designed to trump any rationale debate about class and peace. I find that even enlightened people I know fall victim to the nonsense that the US invented democracy and is God’s Chosen One. The Native Americans got the same spiel before they were slaughtered. So did the Filipinos. And so on.
US anti-war movements are seldom internationalist. The US has never had a Labour Party, so anti-war people cling to the Democratic Party which, apart from its populist phase, was always militarist. The coup de grace to the peace mass movement in the US was delivered when Barack Obama was elected. The fawning over the first African-American president was a pretty disgusting spectacle when you look at his record, particularly towards people of colour all over the world. So many forgot that George W Bush could boast the most multi-racial cabinet in US history; his secretary of state, his national security adviser, his attorney general were Americans of colour, and vicious reactionaries. Who dared stand up and say that, once subverted by power, it’s not your race or your gender or your sexual preference or your class that matters, it’s the class and power you serve. Obama is the Great Servitor, and his most enduring achievement is all but silencing the contemporary anti-war movement.
9. Again, looking forward, how do you think we might do better, in the period ahead?
If by “we” you mean ordinary people, we have no choice but to keep standing up, to keep informing others and organising, and not to allow a mutated “popular culture” or hi-jacked issues of “identity” and “self” deflect us into believe that consumerist lifestyle is real change.
10. What would international relations be like, say fifty years in the future - not country by country but in terms of general relationships - if it was as it ought to be?
Mike, I’m not and have never been a futurist. I predict badly; however, I’m confident that if we remain silent while the US war state, now rampant, continues on its bloody path, we bequeath to our children and grandchildren a world with an apocalyptic climate, broken dreams of a better life for all and, as the unlamented General Petraeus put it, a state of “perpetual war”. Do we accept that or do we fight back?