‘Journalism, not truth, is the first casualty of war’


WAR IS a well-produced reality show. Embedded journalism is the star cast. Yes, there are innocents dying, but why let that interfere with what the boss wants reported? Award-winning documentary filmmaker-journalist John Pilger is like the Censor Board in reverse. He hunts down secret footage and uses it as damning evidence, countering what war mongers want you to believe. His 2010 documentary The War You Don’t See had its Indian premiere in Delhi recently. Its footage of a US chopper firing on unarmed Baghdad residents and injured children being ignored as collateral damage raises questions about the media’s engage ment with war. Ironically, the journalists were conspicuous by their absence. For someone who has covered every major war of our times, even Pilger, 72, underneath his composed exterior, seemed disappointed. He tells Karuna John that journalists owe their loyalty to telling the truth. Period.

Writing beyond borders: John Pilger
Writing beyond borders: John Pilger

Edited Excerpts From An Interview

How has journalism changed since when you started as a young reporter?
The means — the technology of journalism — have changed out of all recognition. As a foreign correspondent, I carried a portable typewriter, a shortwave radio and a thick notebook. Getting the story back to London often meant pleading with postal officials to cable it after hours. Thanks to a redoubtable Mrs Bannerjee, who ran the switchboard at the Grand Hotel in Calcutta during the Bangladesh War, I was able to get a line through to London and dictate my story to a ‘copy-taker’. Today, communications are instant; the Mrs Bannerjees have been made redundant. But does that mean better journalism? Yes, when the news is breaking and the correspondent is a witness and the images can be sent instantaneously. But generally speaking, the answer is no. Journalists now are under constant pressure to file 24/7 even — or usually — when they don’t know what is going on. Those precious hours of reflection and proper professional investigation are gone; technology has made competition almost absurd, with journalists often interviewing each other in order to be ahead of rivals.

Blind spot: The poster for The War You Don’t See
Blind spot: The poster for The War You Don’t See

The War You Don’t See is a hard-hitting film. Are you aiming it at your colleagues in the media fraternity? Is there a particular report that was a final straw, resulting in this film?
The film is aimed both at journalists and the general public. Remember, the public has long been ahead of the media in understanding that news is not as it seems. The defensiveness of journalists to discuss openly the way they work, and the way news is selected has left them behind. For me, the horrific human carnage of the wanton invasion of Iraq was the ‘final straw’ — if one was needed. The invasion caused the deaths of more than a million men, women and children — that’s the figure that comes from the Johns Hopkins University epidemiological survey, the only peer-reviewed study, and it’s higher than the Fordham University estimate of the number of people who died in the Rwanda genocide. The Johns Hopkins work was attacked and ignored by much of the western media, so that most people in the West have no idea of the sheer scale of suffering caused by their governments. According to Dan Rather, the former CBS news anchor I interview in my film, had journalists in the US done their job and challenged the lies about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, instead of amplifying and echoing them, the invasion may not have happened. So the blood of all those people is on our hands in the media.

Why is self-critique such a taboo for journalists? Have journalism’s basic ethics changed to cater to a market rather than a conscience?
Yes, the so-called market has consumed much of journalism. Editors have become business managers, imbued with the jargon and mythology of ‘neoliberalism’. This is also true of state broadcasters like the BBC. Watch BBC World and you’ll see much of it is about business.

In the film, you speak about the ‘drumbeat or war’. Is journalism a casualty of war too?
Journalism, not truth, is the first casualty of war. Dan Rather referred to those who apologised for the Iraq invasion as “stenographers”, not journalists.

‘Had journalists in the US done their job, the Iraq invasion may not have happened. So the blood is on our hands’

Does embedded journalism exist only in war reportage? What is the way to counter the ‘public relations’ style reportage?
‘Embedded reporting’ exists right throughout the media. The studio host, in his or her selection of news, or subjects, even language, demonstrates perhaps the most common form of embedded journalism.

Which media group do you think is the worst offender? And which one has remained true to the ethics of journalism?
There is a close contest for the ‘worst offenders’. They range from Fox News to BBC. Many journalists have rema ined true to a view of the craft as the agency of people, not authority and power. In Mexico, La Jornada is the sec ond most popular newspaper and run almost entirely on subscriptions. It is rem iniscent of the great newspapers in the West that investigated and campai gned on behalf of their readers. Realnews.com produced a better service of breaking news on a shoe-string [budget] than most wealthy TV networks. Websites like Information Clearing House and ZNet offer excellent daily journalism.

Is there still hope for young journalists today? How do they avoid the seduction of easy access to the powerful?
You avoid the ‘seduction’, as you put it, by being true to yourself and remembering that real journalism seldom comes from the top but from hard work at the bottom. In other words, you regard yourself always as independent of government and all vested interests. It’s hard, but many have achieved this independence. It’s about will and not a little passion for the craft.

Karuna John is Associate Editor, Tehelka.com. 



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