Chances are, if we stray from the fantasy world of smoke and mirrors called the mainstream media and try to find out what is really happening in the world, we will find the work of John Pilger, the Australian born, now London–based writer and filmmaker. For thirty–five years he has written many books, hundreds of articles and made dozens of films. He has made a living, found a wide readership and audience, gained international respect and won many awards, including an Emmy, the UK Richard Dimbleby Award and has been named the International Reporter of the Year. All without selling his soul or compromising his commitment to the real story from East Timor to Iraq, from Vietnam to Nicaragua.
If we learned in all the sentimentality of the reporting of the Tsunami tragedy of December that lives could have been saved if the USA military had passed on the warning from its gigantic base on Diego Garcia, we have Pilger to thank. In fact, if we have ever even heard of this base in the Indian Ocean, it is thanks to Pilger. In 2004, he released a film, “Stealing A Nation ”. This documentary tells the shocking story of the UK government giving away the Chago Islands to the USA. The people lived a paradisiacal existence on these tropical islands; they used much loved pet dogs to fish for them; the dogs swam out and returned with fish in their mouths for their owners. One of the first acts of the USA military occupation in 1971 was to kill all the dogs with fumes from their vehicles. Then they “swept and sanitized” to prepare the island for its one billion dollar base – all the Chagossians were secretly expelled from paradise and left without hope or help in the slums of Mauritius. Pilger documents all this, using old film from the pre–occupation to the present as the Chagossians challenge the UK in court to return their homeland to them.
For many of us the truth about the first war on Iraq in 1991, the effects of the inhumane embargo on Iraq and the deaths and devastating illnesses attributed to depleted uranium, compounded by poor nutrition and lack of medicine came from Pilger’s many films about Iraq. In 2004, Pilger’s, ‘ Breaking the Silence: Truth and Lies in the War on Terror’, won the gold award in the political category at the prestigious 2004 WorldMedia Festival in Hamburg, Germany over 300 entries from 23 nations. This film, set in Iraq, Afghanistan and Washington, traces the mendacious history of events leading to the ‘war on terror’ and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Returning to the Tsunami, Pilger writes mainly for independent UK papers, The Guardian and The New Statesman. (many articles are available on www.johnpilger.com ) He reveals that while people of good heart responded overwhelmingly to the disaster, governments had a different agenda for Asia. InThe Other Tsunami, The New Statesman, 10 January 2005 he says:
“While the sea may have killed tens of thousands, western policies kill millions every year. Yet even amid disaster, a new politics of community and morality is emerging. The west’s crusaders, the United States and Britain, are giving less to help the tsunami victims than the cost of a Stealth bomber or a week’s bloody occupation of Iraq. The bill for George Bush´s inauguration party would rebuild much of the coastline of Sri Lanka. Bush and Blair increased their first driblets of “aid” only when it became clear that people all over the world were spontaneously giving millions and that a public relations problem beckoned. The Blair government’s current “generous” contribution is one–sixteenth of the £800m it spent on bombing Iraq before the invasion and barely one–twentieth of a £1bn gift, known as a soft loan, to the Indonesian military so that it could acquire Hawk fighter–bombers.
On 24 November, one month before the tsunami struck, the Blair government gave its backing to an arms fair in Jakarta, “designed to meet an urgent need for the [Indonesian] armed forces to review its defence capabilities”, reported the Jakarta Post. The Indonesian military, responsible for genocide in East Timor, has killed more than 20,000 civilians and “insurgents” in Aceh.
“My best work, I believe, has been produced in harness and comradeship with some of the great photographers of my time. ”Pilger is always generous to his co-workers and recently I was fortunate enough to see a major exhibition organized by Pilger to honour photographers he has worked with, names we seldom see or remember, but the images remain in our consciousness. Photos that accompany his thirty-five years of journalism are reproduced in:
REPORTING THE WORLD: John Pilger’s Great Eyewitness Photographers, published by The Barbican Gallery, London, UK. see www.21publishing.com
I remember a haunting image of a South African woman in 1985, her hands raised against mighty military vehicles by Paul Weinberg. It showed the world the incredible bravery of the anti–apartheid struggle. Equally unforgettable is Susan Meisalas’image of the pope in Nicaragua, chastising the Sandinistas in 1983. All of these photos are memories of our times, haunting, horrific and necessary for understanding.
TELL ME NO LIES: Investigative Journalism and its Triumphs edited by John Pilger, published by Jonathan Cape, London UK, 2004 is Pilger’s tribute to his colleagues in journalism who reveal the message and myths behind the superficial story. On the back cover is a great quote from Claud Cockburn,“Never believe anything until it is officially denied.”
This thick treasure of a collection with many recognizable names is well worth owning and revisiting often. Felicity Arbuthnot, a frequent speaker in Canada, writes about an Iraqi poet she met selling cigarettes in Basra. She had his poems published, but Jassim died of cancer at fourteen before he saw his poetry book. The late Edward Said, the great Palestinian intellectual, is given a final tribute and his article. “Covering Islam” is reprinted here. He says. “Malicious generalizations about Islam have become the last acceptable form of denigration of foreign culture in the West.” There are witty – as always – words from Eduardo Galeano of Uruguay. Linda Melvern’s article on Rwanda “A People Betrayed” has become a book about that tragedy.
New Rulers of the World, Verso, UK, 2002, Pilger’s authoritative, extensively researched and referenced work on Globalization and the people and corporations who control the world, is still timely and useful.
For all of us who are committed to meaningful change through political and social movements rigorous examination of events and actions is imperative to our understanding. Understanding is the first step towards the creation of change. For those who want to record contemporary events, Pilger is an essential teacher. We are fortunate to have writers and filmmakers like Pilger as models and as sources of knowledge about the complexity of contemporary history.