For any hack who is even a little bit reflective, it ought to be heart-breaking. When an iconic journalist, with nearly 50 years of experience, says he’s optimistic about the future of media because there exist whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning, who are doing the kind of work that journalists should do but don’t, it ought to shatter you. John Pilger, 74, is an icon because as a journalist he relentlessly demands it of you to be aware of the lies your governments tell. To be aware of inequalities and injustices inflicted and perpetuated by big brothers, big money and big media.
“Tony Blair was instrumental in the invasion of Iraq with George (Bush). Blair, if he was an African, would be arrested and tried for war crimes. He isn’t. What I try to do in the society I work in is to ask readers to look into the mirror. (However) Blair and his henchmen, his mouthpieces like Alastair Campbell, are on the liberal circuit in London,” he says.
Over five decades of investigative reporting, Pilger has done as much. He has reported on almost every conflict that marked the second half of the 20th century. As a young war correspondent for London’s Daily Mirror, he was in Vietnam and Cambodia. In the same decade, the 1970s, he also covered the massive dissidence brewing in the Soviet Union. In the ’80s, he made a documentary on the effects of the US intervention in Nicaragua. In the early ’90s, he was among the Australian journalists who documented the sheer scale of the genocide in East Timor, and Australia and the West’s silence and tacit support for Indonesia, which had occupied the island. His latest film Utopia looks at the racism and oppression that Australia has meted out to the aboriginal population. Over the course of his career he has authored eight books, most notably Heroes and Hidden Agendas.
In the following years, Pilger covered Afghanistan, Iraq and much of Latin America — places where the US and its allies wreaked havoc. Recently, he has rallied behind WikiLeaks and individuals like Snowden. “It’s a great moral act of our times,” he says of Snowden’s leaking of NSA files.
“I grew up with American movies. I grew up with John Wayne. My sense of America was different from what I found it to be later,” he says, while describing how US propaganda is endearing to the unsuspecting and the uninformed.
In fact, Pilger’s strategy to counter the hegemony of power and imbalance in distribution of income is to demand awareness of people. Pilger doesn’t seem to be afraid of infiltrating the world of big money. “…this country (India), which has a third of the world’s poor and yet produces 100,000 engineering graduates. That division between people, we should be aware of it. We shouldn’t fool ourselves that there’s a corporate world in which many of us are comfortable and there’s a world in which the majority of people are uncomfortable… I find being in India unreal. It proclaims its democracy so much, yet doesn’t give democracy to its people. As journalists, we have to investigate that. Many people have internalised the propaganda of shining India. It goes back to being constantly aware (of inequalities),” he says.
When on stage, Pilger is a 74-year-old talking American imperialism and the ways propaganda works; at a bar a day later, he seems like an inquisitive 20-something merely exchanging notes with a fellow reporter. His extensive career in journalism hasn’t robbed him of curiosity or humility. “It’s amazing. India is a country of some amazing statistics,” he says, blurting out stats on malnutrition deaths among children, illiteracy rates in Uttar Pradesh and the likes. He asks questions that invariably need straight answers.
In an interview to Pilger, a former CIA official in-charge of Latin American affairs had said, “This is the way we are. Get used to it, world. We are the power.” In an ideal world, these are lines the free press of democracies ought to have been telling their readers. However, the task is left to individuals like Pilger, whose work in celebrated intellectual Noam Chomsky’s words, is “a beacon of light in often dark times”.