Beyond the dross

John Pilger and Steve Platt first worked together during the 1991 Gulf War, when they shared platforms at Media Workers Against the War rallies. Platt, who had just taken over as editor of the New Statesman, asked Pilger to contribute a regular column for the magazine - which he has continued under different editors and proprietors ever since. Best known for his hard-hitting television and newspaper reports, and his excoriating analysis of the global warmongers, injustice and poverty, Pilger discusses here with Platt their shared craft of journalism

July 5, 2010 · 16 min read

Steve Platt As an opener, I suppose we need to define our terms. What does ‘radical journalism’ mean to you, in principle and in practice? Did you see yourself as ‘radical’ from the outset or did that come through experience? Indeed, is ‘radical’ a term you would choose to use? I’d also be interested in your views on how things have changed since you first came into journalism. For all the proliferation of outlets today, would the young John Pilger find it easier or harder to find one?

John Pilger ‘Radical’ has been too often appropriated by those who are not. I describe myself simply as a journalist. It’s an honourable term if you retain your independence, if you are an agent of people, never of power, reporting the world from the ground up, never from the top down.

I grew up in a family that believed in supporting the underdog: is that radical? I took that principle and a strong anti-authoritarianism into journalism. I like to think that the origins of my anti-authoritarianism came from my great-great grandfather, who was transported to Australia from County Ruscommon for ‘uttering unlawful oaths’.

I worked my cadetship on a right-wing newspaper in Sydney that might have been a setting for Ben Hecht’s The Front Page. The volcanic proprietor, Sir Frank Packer, counted the paperclips and routinely fired the sub-editors if he didn’t like the first edition – or if his horse had lost.

That said, it was a superb place to learn the craft. I tried almost everything, from crime reporting to sport; by the age of 21 I was a deputy chief sub-editor. It was only when I arrived in England in the 1960s and was sent to report on a world I never imagined that I became what might be called ‘radical’. Since then, much has changed for young journalists, and much has not. A young me would still require the determination to navigate through an essentially conservative or ‘corporate’ system.

Platt Would you agree that that conventional cadetship is all but disappearing from journalism today? NUJ president Jeremy Dear (Red Pepper, Jan/Feb 2010) recently cited a prediction by media analyst Clare Enders that half of the country’s 1,300 local papers will close by 2013, with the loss of 20,000 jobs. The ‘conventional’ route into journalism these days seems to consist of a willingness to ‘churn’ (to use Nick Davies’ word) the same unoriginal material for a variety of outlets, on an insecure contract and a pittance in pay. How does the independent journalist deal with that?

Pilger I agree that the idea of a cadetship – in effect, a craft apprenticeship – is all but lost. I have never been convinced that graduate entry into journalism is right; too many media colleges are run by ex-Fleet Street types or ex-BBC people who merely recycle corporate journalism’s disguises. There are honourable exceptions, of course; I am associated with Lincoln University, whose media people have challenged the notion of ideological ‘war journalism’ as the standard for reporting conflict. I admire that.

Yes, the conventional route into journalism these days is a willingness to ‘churn’; it’s also a willingness to adopt a cynicism about readers, viewers and listeners that the young are encouraged to believe ordains them as proper journalists. That’s not new. When scepticism about power challenges this you have the making of an independent journalist. This often requires an iron determination to keep your principles and not be deceived by siren calls to BBC-type ‘professionalism’.

Platt How does one get round the fact that all of the major news outlets pursue broadly similar approaches? Independent journalism isn’t much use without a vehicle through which to express it. Where is the media of today prepared to give the modern independent journalist his or her head in the way that the Daily Mirror gave you the freedom to report from Vietnam and elsewhere in the 1960s?

Pilger The Daily Mirror of the 1960s/70s is unlikely to come back – although it did so for 18 memorable months from October 2001 under Piers Morgan, proving that nothing is lost forever. For young journalists, the internet and the technology to make films easily (if at times chaotically) is their ‘vehicle’. During the invasion of Iraq, Jo Wilding, a young Englishwoman, filed to her own website some of the best eyewitness war reporting I have read. She succeeded where the embedded reporters failed. Her independence made her journalism believable.

Platt I think it’s not just the Daily Mirror of the 1960s that is unlikely to return but the sort of mass readership that went with it. In the 1960s it was possible for a single feature to have an impact that is hard to imagine today. This was even more so with television. Think of Cathy Come Home, which led to the formation of Shelter, and its impact on attitudes – and public policy – towards the homeless. Does the internet and new technology have the same potential? And how do we filter out the stuff that is meaningful and substantial from the new oceans of dross?

Pilger Yes, sifting through the media dross is a big job, but there was always dross. I don’t agree that powerful popular journalism can’t make a splash these days. The Mirror following 9/11 demonstrated this (‘Blair: Blood on his hands’ and others); and the Mirror played an important part in helping to galvanise the anti-war movement in the build-up to the Iraq invasion. On television, think of the recent Dispatches that illuminated the true face of former New Labour ministers. Yes, there are changing trends and umpteen digital channels, but most digital TV is a stream of sameness. Documentaries that are not themselves dross and have something to report and say would draw the public if they were given a peak-time slot. Remember the public is far more aware than it was in the 1960s.

Platt Some people in the anti-war movement might say that the Mirror piggy-backed on what was already a huge upsurge of popular protest – and of course neither the Mirror nor the anti-war movement in general proved capable of taking that protest further once the war had started. I’m interested in how you think a running story (or a continuing injustice) can be kept in the public eye, which relates to how an independent journalist or campaigner can maintain interest or attention beyond the immediate ‘high points’ such as the 2003 protests. A lot of people’s experience of 2003 has finished up being a negative one, in the sense that in the end not even one or two million people on the streets could stop the war.

Pilger I think you are quite wrong to say the anti-war movement proved incapable of taking the protest forward once the invasion had happened. Stop the War in Britain is a remarkable organisation, which has played an unerring role in educating and supporting a consistent and growing public opposition to the war and Blair in the face of the disintegration of the Labour Party and a blizzard of disinformation, not to mention the hand-wringing of those who believed one demonstration would deter Blair’s fanaticism.

The Mirror‘s role in the mobilisation for the anti-war effort in 2003 was certainly unusual but it was within an extraordinary tradition. In 1945, the Mirror mobilised its readers (and most of the electorate) to ‘Vote for them’ – ‘them’ meaning the returning troops and code for a reformist Britain.

Platt Why do you think it is that the left hasn’t managed to develop and sustain its own media in the way that the right has?

Pilger Most of the press is devoted to a corporate status quo, the Guardian included. Broadcasting is no different; the BBC has an enduring right-wing editorial agenda, regardless of its waffle about impartiality. The Tories nationalised the BBC so they could control it. And governments have, more or less. The left – regardless of its support – will never find a home in the corporate media; it must create its own, which it is doing on the web.

Platt You were one of the first journalists, if I remember rightly, to set up his own website. But am I right in thinking that it has been primarily a ‘shop window’ for your work in other media – film and print? As far as I know, you’ve never produced original work for the web. Have you considered, for example, blogging yourself – and do you read the blogs of others?

Pilger My website was set up by a group of young enthusiasts at what was then Central TV. I was an appreciative bystander. They launched me into cyberspace. One of them, Ollie Doward, has managed the site ever since. As for blogging? I spend too much time on my journalism and other commitments to blog. Also, there is an important difference between good journalism and blogging. Of course, there are excellent bloggers – I’ve mentioned Jo Wilding, for example – but there are too many middle-of-the-night, top-of-the-head blowhards.

Platt Do you follow anyone regularly on the web – or any particular websites? One of the things that strikes me persistently is how little truly original content there is out there: a plethora of regurgitated material and (too often right-wing, bigoted) opinion but far too little evidence of the authors getting up and talking to people, which is at the core of your own – and all good – journalism. What would be your advice to young journalists seeking to make the best use of the web?

Pilger The web is central to what I do now. I’ve long changed the habit of a lifetime. I open a newspaper – the Guardian – only after I have looked at at least four or five websites. I don’t agree with you about the web. It has some quite brilliant sites: trawls/digests some of them, yes, but many with original journalism. I’m long fed up with the right-wing press and with formulaic TV news. Have a look at the links on my website, many of them fine journals in their own right.

Platt Do you find that the interactive aspects of the web have greatly increased your own interaction with people over your work? Where once there were only letters and perhaps public meetings, there are now many more – and much more immediate – forms of communication and contact. Not just a story but a campaign can now go global in an instant.

Pilger Email has made a real difference, especially when I’m travelling. And of course there are the mailing lists associated with the web and all the other wondrous mechanisms for mobilising and informing people. I have just downloaded valuable material from Wikileaks – the equivalent would have taken me weeks or months to unearth, if at all. But these are still only tools.

You refer to when there were ‘once’ public meetings. Are you not aware that the public meeting has never been more popular? Over Easter I attended (in Melbourne) what can only be described as a festival of debate and free speech on issues that the mass media ignores or suppresses. At each event there were up to 500 people present. Public meetings are the real test of public awareness, because they require us to get up from our computers and to take action.

Platt How do you feel about the description of yourself as a ‘campaigning journalist’? You’ve mentioned the anti-war movement. To what extent do you see yourself as an active campaigner, part of a movement rather than just an individual reporter? And to what extent do you think journalists should be involved in campaign activities? Is there a conflict?

Pilger I don’t use the term ‘campaigning journalist’; but as it often comes in good faith, I accept it. I am, above all, an independent journalist, which I have already described.

Platt A letter in a recent issue of the New Statesman, aimed at you personally, levels a complaint that is familiar to radical journalists and the left in general: ‘John Pilger tells us what he is against but fails to set out what he is for, and how to achieve it.’ How do you respond to that sort of criticism?

Pilger That letter was about my column on Haiti. Did you read the letter the following week which answered it? That writer described all that my article was ‘for’ – for example, I am for people living in secure structures that do not collapse because they are jerry-built; I am for people not having poverty imposed on them, and so on.

My job is to help give people the most essential power of all: truthful information, without which nothing can change. This can at times be a daunting task. Through all my work there runs a transparent set of positive, practical and achievable principles which, I believe, are necessary to build a new world. Unlike those who look for excuses, who cry out to be ‘led’, the great majority of my readers and viewers have no difficulty in understanding this.

Platt Of course the truth can set you free – and it’s certainly an essential prerequisite in any attempt to build a new world. But it isn’t enough in itself, is it? Eventually someone has to get their hands dirty and start building, even if it’s not the people who write about it. Are principles enough – or does there have to be practice?

Pilger I think I have done my share of ‘getting my hands dirty’ in order to produce a positive result. Cambodia. East Timor. Palestine. The thalidomide children. The struggle of indigenous people in Australia. Et cetera. If you go to a country that doesn’t have the privileges and, yes, freedoms our society still has, where struggle is raw and dangerous, and you plead, ‘Oh what can you do?’ people will look at you dumbfounded, because the question simply doesn’t arise. They know what to do. And so should we.

Platt Which of the many stories are you are most pleased (if that is the right word) to have covered in your career – and which would you have most liked to but didn’t?

Pilger It’s difficult to single out one that pleased me more than others. But several endure in the memory – Cambodia and East Timor, for example. The impact of the films I made there – five films in Cambodia – had real and positive consequences for the lives of many people. In my book, Heroes, I describe in some detail what happened in Cambodia. Year Zero raised, unsolicited, some $45 million, and led to the restoration of life in numerous forms.

In Britain, my TV and Mirror reports in support of the ‘Y List’ of Thalidomide victims led to their compensation. The Y List were working class children whose mothers had no record of taking the drug and were left out of the original settlement; the X List were mostly middle class children whose mothers had kept the prescription and had the support of the Sunday Times.

My reports about the maternity unit at Hackney Hospital, where conditions were so bad women had died in childbirth, led to its closure and the building of a new unit. I have reported extensively on Australia’s indigenous population, the poorest in the world. This has made me both friends and enemies in my homeland. Last year, I received the Sydney Peace Prize, Australia’s human rights prize. Accepting it in the city where I was born and grew up gave me particular pleasure.

Platt You remain notably optimistic about the potential for journalism in particular and people in general to change the world. So what is the story that is crying out for the attention of the young and optimistic independent/radical journalist of today?

Pilger The issue isn’t really one of optimism versus pessimism, or hope versus despair. (Woody Allen said he felt much better when he gave up hope.) These can replace rational thinking and prevent us from looking beyond the everyday cynicism and propaganda of corporate politics and the media and recognising the gains made in our lifetime by us: not least in our personal lives. The danger these days is manufactured illusion, presided over by a corporate cult of the ‘eternal present’, as Time magazine likes to call it.

The media in all its ephemeral and hi-tech forms is at the centre of this, especially in corrupting political language, fixing the boundaries of debate, promoting rapacious power and seeking to persuade us that ‘nothing can be done’. So I would say the story crying out for the attention of young journalists is propaganda in the media age: that is to say, all forms of the media, including advertising and corporate public relations.

PR Week once estimated that more than half of all newspaper content was PR-generated, particularly in the City and sports pages. The corporatising, or appropriation, of news and facts and truth, and the dereliction of public memory, are probably the most critical issues today – for one thing, they lead us to unnecessary war as a permanent state removed in distance and culture from our everyday lives.

This is barbaric, of course, as is its corollary: unnecessary poverty. We are not automatons; we have no choice but to deal with these challenges as human beings and to support those who struggle on our behalf.

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