To Pilger or Not to Pilger: Honoring a Legacy

John Pilger reporting in East Timor, 1994 (Graphic: Brian Covert / Photo: Television Stills)John Pilger reporting in East Timor, 1994 (Graphic: Brian Covert / Photo: Television Stills)

John Pilger reporting in East Timor, 1994 (Graphic: Brian Covert / Photo: Television Stills)

As a journalist, author and documentary filmmaker, John Pilger has long stood as an unapologetic and determined foe of governments, wars and propaganda throughout his career. He has been equally a passionate seeker of facts and truth whenever they were being covered up by those in positions of authority. He also passionately followed the most important ethic of working in the news media: Be the voice of the voiceless.

And with his recent passing at age 84 in London, the city where he was based most of his life, Pilger’s work in the press and as a war correspondent becomes the stuff of legend. He was arguably the most prominent journalistic campaigner for truth, justice and human rights in the latter half of the 1900s and into this century as well.

Pilger may well have been, for better or worse, the only journalist ever to have a dictionary definition named after him. The Oxford English Dictionary of New Words, in its 1991 edition published in Britain, defined its new term “to Pilger” this way: “conducting journalism in a manner supposedly characteristic of John Pilger, or, more specifically, as presenting information in a sensationalist manner to support a foregone conclusion; using emotive language to make a false political point; treating a subject emotionally with generous disregard for inconvenient detail; or making a pompous judgement on wrong premises.”

This negative term “to Pilger,” in fact, had been originally penned by the late right-wing British essayist Auberon Waugh. The term “to Pilger,” according to Waugh, “means when anybody who wants to make a good argument shouts and waves his arms about a lot and, oh, vaguely blames you for murdering Vietnamese babies.” (Pilger himself, through the threat of legal action, was successful in getting the term “to Pilger” listing deleted from the Oxford English Dictionary altogether a few years later.)

Pilger had his share of detractors, to be sure, many of whom were his peers in the United Kingdom press and beyond. Check out this heated television interview of Pilger by a veteran broadcaster in New Zealand in 2003, following the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Pilger stood his ground and correctly chastised the interviewer for not doing her homework about the Iraq war beforehand.

Unlike most of his detractors in and out of the media, Pilger never misinformed the public or pulled his punches. He never cowered before the mighty hands of corporate and governmental power. He stood up against imperialism, fascism and colonialism wherever they reared their ugly heads — especially in countries like the United States, England and his native Australia — and often urged his colleagues in the news media field to do the same. Few ever bothered.

Pilger was a journalist’s journalist, without a doubt.

It was during the American War in the southeast Asian nation of Vietnam in the 1960s-70s that Pilger, a newspaper reporter and editor up until then, first made a name for himself at the international level. On the ground in Vietnam, many Yankee soldiers were rebelling against their senior officers in moral opposition to the war, yet no U.S. war correspondent dared to expose that truth. Pilger did. His first documentary film for television, titled The Quiet Mutiny and broadcast in 1970 by the UK-based Granada Television franchise, broke open America’s dirty little secret in Vietnam — much to the chagrin of the Pentagon and the U.S. and British corporate media powers-that-be.

Pilger would recall years later that his first foray into TV journalism, “far from being anti-American, had shown only sympathy for the despair of young GIs caught up in a hopeless war. When I flew to New York and showed it to Mike Wallace, the star reporter of CBS’s 60 Minutes, he agreed. ‘Real shame we can’t show it here’ [in the USA], he said. This fear and loathing came as a surprise to me. I was a newspaper journalist naïve in the ways of television, especially the lengths to which established power went to control it.”

Pilger lived and worked for a spell in the United States, reporting on the issues of the day from right within the belly of the beast. He released a trilogy of British TV documentary films made in the U.S., concluding with The Street of Joy on how the advertising and marketing techniques of Madison Avenue and Wall Street were being used to sell household products as well as American presidents (a nobody candidate by the name of Jimmy Carter, in this case). Pilger ended the hard-hitting trilogy on American capitalism with this zinger, cutting through all the crap as it were: “A billion dollars is actually the amount of money that Americans are expected to spend on freshened, pre-moisturized toilet tissue and on the [1976] presidential campaign. Need I say that both products — pre-moisturized toilet tissue and some politicians — have those two magic ingredients: believability and flushability.” Ouch!

Not even the revered South African leader Nelson Mandela was safe from Pilger’s incisive questioning. Check out the finger-wagging admonishment Mandela gave Pilger in his 1998 TV documentary Apartheid Did Not Die. As highly as many of us hold Mandela in esteem, we have to acknowledge that Pilger (who was once “banned” by the white South African apartheid government from reporting in the country) was on the mark in his tough questioning of Mandela about South Africa’s economic policies after apartheid. Some of Mandela’s closest confidants in the Black liberation struggle would, in fact, publicly agree in later years with that very same criticism: that in a quest to gain political freedom from apartheid, Mandela and his political party, the African National Congress (ANC), had allowed the white-dominated economy of South Africa to remain virtually intact after apartheid.

Then came September 11, 2001 in the United States and a newly proclaimed “war on terror” by the boy-emperor in charge, George W. Bush. Following the illegal American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Pilger responded with his TV documentary Breaking the Silence: Truth and Lies in the War on Terror.

The first documentary film of Pilger’s to break into movie theaters was The War on Democracy, released in 2007. It explored the past and present relationships of Washington DC with Latin American nations like Bolivia, Chile and Venezuela. This film is most notable for how Pilger confronts a former high-ranking official of the U.S. government’s Central Intelligence Agency face to face about the arrogant American foreign policy domination of nations throughout Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s. A journalist actually holding the CIA publicly accountable for its past sins? It would be hard to imagine such a scene ever being shown to television viewers in the USA.

Pilger’s own country, Australia, was not exempt from criticism, either. He did a number of reports over the years on the shameful, racist treatment of the Aborigine people, the original indigenous inhabitants of the country. One of his last films — about the Aboriginal struggle in Australia, Utopia, released in 2013 — is a must-see documentary. Classic Pilger all the way.

Which naturally brings us back to the term “to Pilger,” embraced by the conservative British media establishment in the early 1990s as a negative, disparaging term to describe journalist John Pilger’s stellar work in the news business. The rightists stole his good name back then, and now, in the wake of his death, I take the liberty of stealing that dictionary definition back for him. So, scribes everywhere, get your pens out and jot this down. Here is what the term will mean from now on:

To Pilger (verb) — to pursue excellence in journalism in accordance with the high ideals of Australian journalist John Pilger. To investigate and interrogate those in positions of authority in centers of political and economic power without fear or favor. To tell the truth and not to lie to the people. To represent the best of both the spirit and the letter of high-quality journalism. To act as the voice of the voiceless, not as sycophants to the wealthy and the famous. To seek out the truth wherever it may lead and to report that truth to the people, unvarnished and uncompromised. To boldly go where no journalist has gone before.

There it is. A brand-new dictionary definition of Pilger’s work in journalism that honors his legacy in the most accurate way possible for the future. Webster’s American English Dictionary, are you paying attention?

Pilger himself best summed up the sorry state of the press worldwide in an interview in 2007, at the height of the American wars then being waged in Iraq — both the propaganda war and the war on the ground — and about how a real transformation of journalism must now happen:

“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.

“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.”

John Pilger — 1939-2023

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