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Published onApr 07, 2024
Tributes
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Tributes to John Pilger (1939-2023)

Florian Zollmann

He wrote for humanity

For John Pilger, people were the true heroes of our time when they spoke about their suffering from imperial wars, poverty and racism. His warning voice will remain an inspiration for generations of journalists to come, writes Florian Zollmann.

The renowned foreign correspondent John Pilger, who died in London on 23 December 2023 at the age of 84, took journalism seriously. When I once asked him about his investigative journalism, he immediately corrected me: ‘There is no such thing as investigative journalism. What I do is journalism and that’s how you should also call it.’ This was typical of Pilger, who had a direct way of addressing things and for whom details were important.

John Pilger emigrated from Australia to Great Britain in 1962 and then embarked on an unprecedented journalistic journey. For a large part of his professional career, Pilger worked for the British tabloid, the Daily Mirror. He initially covered British politics before he became the Mirror’s chief foreign correspondent. Pilger also published his work in numerous other publications such as the New Statesman, the Guardian, the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Consortium News. He wrote eight books and produced 61 documentaries, many of which have been broadcast during prime time on major television networks such as the UK’s ITV.

John Pilger’s journalism depicted reality ‘from below’. His formula was to describe society in the way that people witnessed it. For him, people constituted the true heroes of our time when they spoke about their suffering from imperial wars, poverty and racism. Pilger did not shy away from shaming the crimes of the powerful. He had the courage to scrutinise state authorities and the military. He questioned the causes of human rights violations and debunked their specious justifications. He was a sharp critic of Western power politics and corporate exploitation. For John Pilger, journalism meant ‘to tell people when they’re being conned or told lies’ (cited in Hayward 2002: 1).

Understanding the hidden agendas of the message

Thoroughly researched journalistic reports that appealed to a broad audience were Pilger’s trademark. Up until his death he reported on the fate of civilians trapped in war zones and uncovered the crimes of numerous governments. To find these truths, he reported from more than 65 countries. ‘What I do is a job of journalism with a respect for humanity, and for telling the stories of humanity from the ground up, not from the point of view of the powerful and those who, in one way or another, want to control or exploit us,’ he said (ibid). Pilger (1999: 3-4) encapsulated his journalistic ethos in the following sentence: ‘Having spent much of my life as a reporter in places of upheaval, including many of the wars of the second half of the century, I have become convinced that it is not enough for journalists to see themselves as mere messengers, without understanding the hidden agendas of the message and the myths that surround it.’

Over ten years ago, I had the privilege of getting to know John Pilger personally. Together with my colleagues Richard Lance Keeble and the late John Tulloch I worked on the John Pilger digital archive project at the University of Lincoln where I was a PhD student. For several years, I organised, indexed and digitalised his private newspaper and audio archive in London. Today, the archive, which contains more than 1,500 newspaper articles, is located in the British Library.

On the Khmer Rouge’s death list

John Pilger worked with the greatest journalistic integrity and did not allow himself to be captured by any political side. He exposed the crimes of ‘right-wing’ and ‘left-wing’ governments. He spoke to dissidents in all parts of the world, such as in the former Czechoslovakia and in South Africa. He was banned from entering Russia in 1979. The same applied to South Africa, where Pilger was not allowed to work during the apartheid regime era because of his critical reporting. Pilger was also among the first journalists to report on the genocide committed by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in 1979. He worked at the risk of his life, as the Khmer Rouge had put Pilger on a death list.

In the film, Paying the price: Killing the children of Iraq (2000), Pilger documented how the US and Britain were responsible for the deaths of about one million people in Iraq, half of them children, because they enforced an UN-imposed sanctions regime. In the film, The war you don’t see (2010), he critically examined Western news media coverage of the Iraq War and the so-called ‘War on Terror’ in Afghanistan. For this film, he also interviewed Julian Assange, the editor of the disclosure platform WikiLeaks. Pilger had been one of Assange’s most loyal supporters (Assange currently sits in a high-security prison in London fighting his deportation to the US on dubious espionage charges). Pilger (2010) highlighted the film’s theme with the following question: ‘The public needs to know the truth about wars. So why have journalists colluded with governments to hoodwink us?’

For asking such critical questions, politicians and elite journalists regularly vilified Pilger. They claimed he was partial and prejudiced, or that he chose a subjective interpretation of journalism that would amount to activism. It is true that Pilger expressed a position on many issues he reported on. But this was done based on thorough research and the careful weighing of facts. Pilger differed from ‘mainstream’ journalism in that he asked critical questions and deviated from the official political consensus. He did not take a more subjective approach than his peers. In fact, two investigations by the British regulatory authority, the Independent Television Commission (ITC), found that Pilger’s journalistic work was impartial (see Zollmann 2012). The jury of the Hannen Swaffer award for descriptive writing in 1966 found that his journalism ‘performed a useful service in redressing the balance for modern youth’ (cited in the Daily Mirror 1967: 1). In 1966, Pilger travelled 90,000 miles and visited 47 countries on an assignment to profile young Brits who had helped others abroad (see ibid; Zollmann 2012). His aim with this series of articles (titled ‘Youth in Action’) was to dispel stereotypes about young people.

Highly awarded

It will be difficult for journalism to fill the void left by John Pilger’s death. He was one of the most decorated journalists in the world, being awarded dozens of national and international prizes. He twice obtained the most prestigious recognition in British print journalism, the Journalist of the Year award. Pilger received the prestigious Sophie Prize for ‘30 years of exposing injustice and promoting human rights’. He won the Australian human rights award the Sydney Peace Prize. And he won two of the world’s most prestigious awards in filmmaking: the Emmy and the BAFTA Award.

I can vividly remember our conversations in his house in London. We stood in his living room between the kitchen and the entrance hall. He enjoyed chatting about the current political situation and the latest escapades of the political establishment in Westminster. I often noticed a hint of irony in his voice, coupled with acumen and wit. At the same time, he showed a deep interest in trying to understand what was on people’s minds? How could he help them? And this sincere interest in people defined his journalism.

I say goodbye to you, John, for being such an inspiration. I salute you.

• This text was firstly published in Publik-Forum Extra Leben. Translation by Florian Zollmann

References

Daily Mirror (1967) The Mirror’s John Pilger wins press award, 21 February p. 1 Hayward, Anthony (2002) In the name of justice: The television reporting of John Pilger, London, Bloomsbury

Pilger, John (2010) John Pilger: Why are wars not being reported honestly? Guardian, 10 December. Available online at https://www.theguardian.com/media/2010/dec/10/ war-media-propaganda-iraq-lies?INTCMP=SRCH, accessed on 23 January 2024)

Pilger, John (1999) Hidden agendas, London, Vintage

Zollmann, Florian (2012) John Pilger’s ‘Youth in Action’ series as literary journalism, Keeble, Richard Lance and Tulloch, John (eds) Global Literary Journalism, New York, Peter Lang pp 362-380

Note on the contributor

Florian Zollmann is a Senior Lecturer in Journalism at Newcastle University, UK. He organised, indexed and digitalised John Pilger’s newspaper archive, which is now in the British Library, London. Zollmann’s research areas include war reporting, news media and journalism, communication power, persuasion and propaganda, critical political economy of the media, and the sociology of news production. Zollmann’s research has been widely published in international academic journals and edited collections. With Richard Lance Keeble and John Tulloch, he jointly published the volume Peace journalism, war and conflict resolution (Peter Lang, 2010). His latest monograph is Media, propaganda and the politics of intervention (Peter Lang, 2017).


Richard Lance Keeble

A unique, courageous voice speaking out for the poor and marginalised

John Pilger, who has died aged 84, was one of the most acclaimed and courageous journalists of his time. His reporting over many decades was inspired by a deep commitment to the poor, to the victims of Western imperialist aggression and to those marginalised by oppressive colonial powers. For Pilger, his journalism was essentially a form of political activism. It took in newspaper reporting for the tabloid, ‘quality’ and alternative press, feature writing, broadcasting, investigative work, foreign corresponding, war reporting and blogging at johnpilger.com. He was the first to win the Journalist of the Year award twice (in 1967 and 1979); other accolades included International Reporter of the Year (1970), Campaigning Journalist of the Year (1978), Sydney Peace Prize (2009) and the Grierson Trust Award (2011).

George Orwell once said that he set out to make ‘political writing an art’. In a similar way, Pilger’s writing is distinctive in its literary elegance – but also in its vitality, its subtle use of irony, its often clever blend of rhetoric, historical analysis, personal memoir and political insight, its descriptive power and in its command of the often complex and highly sensitive documentary evidence. It never drifts into dry, abstract, ideological theory.

In a revealing exchange with Florian Zollmann (2012: 372) about his Daily Mirror ‘Youth in action’ series in 1966 (for which he won the Descriptive Writer of the Year award), Pilger commented:

At an early age I was influenced by the style of journalism that seemed unusually rigorous and which became almost a way of seeing; it elevated the active voice over the passive voice; it denied clichés and employed adjectives only sparingly. It spoke directly but unpatronisingly to the reader ... I remember how one particular passage in ‘Youth in Action’ took me almost two days to write; I was determined that it should say exactly what I wanted it to say but also with a certain rhythm. By giving priority to the writing, I have tried not always successfully to draw together the literary, the analytical and the historical. This is true of my films as well as my written words.

His early influences, he told Zollmann, were the American realist writers like John Steinbeck, the great descriptive journalist James Cameron and the Australian novelist Patrick White ‘whose epic fiction seemed so fine in its human description’ (ibid: 377).

For Pilger, journalists had to strive to be ethical, accurate and seek the ‘truth’. But claims about professional objectivity, he felt, should be treated sceptically. Rather, he drew on Noam Chomsky’s propaganda model to highlight the ways in which the corporate media too often serve as propagandists for the dominant political, economic, cultural, military and intelligence interests. Thus he gave his full support to Piers Robinson, Mark Crispin Miller, Chris Simpson and David Miller in their Organisation for Propaganda Studies following its formation in 2017 and to David Cromwell and David Edwards at the media monitoring web site, medialens.org.

In 1991, the Oxford English dictionary of new words included the verb ‘to Pilger’, defined as ‘to conduct journalism in a manner supposedly characteristic of (Australian author and journalist) John Pilger’. The term had been coined by the journalist Auberon Waugh, to mean ‘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’. In response, his friend and fellow Australian, the investigative journalist Phillip Knightley, provided a new definition of ‘to Pilger’: namely ‘to regard with insight, compassion and sympathy’.

How he loathed ‘parachute’ journalists

Pilger loathed ‘parachute’ journalists who dropped into an area of sudden interest to the mainstream media, quickly filed their superficial reports and then forgot about it. In contrast, he returned again and again to his sources: the miners, the Aborigines, the Palestinians suffering under Israeli oppression, the Chagos Islanders, expelled by the UK and US to Mauritius between 1967 and 1973 to make way for a massive military base, the people of East Timor.

In his dissections of the media, he focused as much on what was missing (in other words, on that which was held secret) as on the actual content. As he commented: ‘Secretive power loathes journalists who do their job, who push back screens, peer behind façades, lift rocks.

Opprobrium from on high is their badge of honour.’ Significantly, he titled his history of Australia A secret country (1989); his television documentary about the media’s coverage of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and of Israel’s oppression of Palestine is called The war you don’t see (2010). While Hidden agendas (1998) collects his writings on Tony Blair’s New Britain, Burma, South Africa and Vietnam.

He was also an outstanding public speaker – whether in a university lecture hall, at a literary festival or at the head of a demonstration.

His eleven books offer a highly personal and critical overview of the practice of journalism, the giants of investigative reporting – and the histories of the Aborigines and Australians, of British colonialism and of US/UK militarism. I found them indispensable in my teaching of journalism to university students over the years. His first, The last day (1975), is an account, in forensic detail, of the last hours of the US presence in Vietnam. Heroes (1986) begins with a revealing memoir of his first journalistic assignments for a local Sydney newspaper and moves on to bring together his reports for the Daily Mirror and British television from the 1960s to the 1980s. Over this period he covered many of the key events in the United States (he was standing close to Robert Kennedy when he was assassinated in June 1968) and the UK (such as the miners’ strike of 1984-1985) – as well as in Palestine, Vietnam, Cambodia, Eritrea, El Salvador and Nicaragua. When reporting on the activities of dissidents in Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union he often went undercover.

Exposing wrongdoing, injustice and the abuse of power

Tell me no lies (2005) highlights the kind of investigative writing he most admired – by his friend Martha Gellhorn, Jessica Mitford, James Cameron, Seymour Hersh, Edward Said, Linda Melvern, Anna Politkovskaya, Günter Wallraff and Amira Hass amongst others – which exposed wrongdoing, injustice and the abuse of power. The brave dispatches sent by his fellow Australian Wilfred Burchett following the American bombing of Hiroshima in August 1945 that revealed to the world the truth about post-nuclear radiation sickness are typical.

In his last book, Freedom next time (2006), which collected his latest reporting on South Africa, Palestine, Afghanistan, India and the Chagos Islands, he is almost alone in daring to challenge the almost saintly image of Nelson Mandela. He writes that ‘as the first liberation president, he ordered a ridiculous and bloody invasion of tiny Lesotho. He allowed South African armaments to be sold to Algeria, Colombia and Peru, which have notorious human rights records. He invited the Indonesian mass murderer General Suharto to South Africa and gave him the country’s highest award. ... He recognised the brutal Burmese junta as a legitimate government’. As Mark Curtis, author and editor of Declassified UK, commented: ‘The array of interviews with the voiceless and abused provides an indispensable corrective to the litany of disinformation we are fed by the media.’

Many of his 60-plus films, 20 of them in collaboration with David Munro (1944-1999), tackle topics largely ignored by mainstream print and broadcast outlets. His first, The quiet mutiny, for ITV’s World in Action in 1970, dares to document the collapse of morale amongst American soldiers in Vietnam. It features many outspoken interviews with disgruntled ‘grunts’ who even admit to killing unpopular officers. According to Phillip Knightley, in his seminal history of war reporting, The first casualty (1982), Pilger’s journalism was among the most important from Vietnam with the soldier revolt revelations marking, in effect, the beginning of the end for the United States in Indo-China.

From the late 1970s, in his campaigning journalism in the Daily Mirror and in his television documentary Cambodia year zero (1979), he exposed the full horrors of the Cambodian ‘killing fields’, so helping to launch a global humanitarian response.

In 1996, Madeleine Albright, then US ambassador to the United Nations, in an interview on CBS, said that the 500,000 child deaths in Iraq as a result of the UN sanctions following the 1991 conflict (overwhelmingly backed by the mainstream print and broadcast media in the West) ‘was a price worth paying’. In response, Pilger’s Paying the price: Killing the children of Iraq (2000) highlighted the terrible human consequences with heart-rendering scenes of malnourished and dying children. In a Baghdad cancer clinic, Denis Halliday – who in 1998 resigned from the UN over the sanctions – tells Pilger: ‘I think in this hospital we’ve seen today evidence of the killing that is now the responsibility of the Security Council member states, particularly, I think, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.’

The dirty war on the NHS (2019), his last film, highlights the ideological attacks on the health service both before and throughout the Covid-19 crisis with inept private firms given lucrative contracts for PPE and mass testing.

More recently, he devoted a great deal of his time to speaking out and writing in progressive alternative media outlets in support of his friend and fellow Australian Julian Assange, the founder of the whistleblowing site WikiLeaks, who is currently in Belmarsh Prison, fighting extradition to the US on charges related to the publication of thousands of classified documents in 2010 and 2011.

Pilger’s inspirational journalism

As a teenager Pilger’s outspoken campaigning journalism in the Daily Mirror helped inspire me (as I’m sure many others) to become a journalist. My own professional collaborations with Pilger began when he gave regular talks to my journalism students at City University, London, in the 1980s and 1990s. For my The newspapers handbook (1994), he gave a wonderful back cover endorsement which I am sure helped make it such a success (it is now in its fifth edition). When I moved to the University of Lincoln in 2003, he was closely involved in the launch of the School of Journalism and he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in 2008. His annual talks for the ‘Journalists speak out’ series up to 2013 would always be packed out. He donated £200 for a prize to the best student in the Investigative Journalism BA (the only such undergraduate programme in the country) while his archive, currently held at the British Library, was digitalised by Florian Zollmann, a PhD student.

When Zollmann, the late John Tulloch, Professor of Journalism at Lincoln, and I edited a collection of essays on the theme of peace journalism to accompany the launch of the human rights reporting Master’s degree in 2010, Pilger wrote the Foreword. Peace journalism, he said, ‘challenges journalism’s right to occupy the mainstream, suggesting that those who propagate the profanities of war, no matter their euphemisms, ought to occupy the craft’s and humanity’s margins until they are finally made redundant’.

Thank you John: you will never be forgotten.

• All of his films are accessible on johnpilger.com. See also Keeble’s interviews with Pilger: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Avc4xdj7vLk, https://www. youtube.com/watch?v=FaJOKb5MgqY. And ‘Jake Lynch defends John Pilger’s journalism on Palestine and Israel’, Ethical Space: Journal with a difference: Celebrating 20 years, Bury St Edmunds, Abramis pp 388-401

Reference

Zollmann, Florian (2012) John Pilger’s ‘Youth in action’ series, Keeble, Richard Lance and Tulloch, John (eds) Global literary journalism: Exploring the journalistic imagination, New York, Peter Lang pp 362-380


TRIBUTE TO JOHAN GALTUNG (1930-2024)

Jake Lynch

A personal recollection

Jake Lynch pays tribute to one of the founders of peace journalism whose death in February 2024 went largely unnoticed by the Western corporate media.

I first met Johan Galtung in 1997 at Taplow Court, a stately home in southern England in use as UK cultural centre for a Japanese-based Buddhist Group, the Soka Gakkai International. Indra Adnan, a friend who worked at the centre, created a series of events to honour Buddhist traditions of peace, and – since my partner, Annabel McGoldrick, and I were both journalists – a media-themed workshop felt like a natural choice. Johan’s published dialogue with Daisaku Ikeda, the SGI president who died last year, made him a natural choice to lead it.

Decades earlier, Galtung had published – with co-author Mari Holmboe Ruge, in the Journal of Peace Research – an article that was to prove highly influential on the study of journalism. The 1965 Galtung-Ruge essay, titled ‘The structure of foreign news’, tilted the emphasis away from journalists’ own individual tastes and prejudices, as determinants of news content, and towards the economic and political structures in which the news was conceived, commissioned, gathered and published.

When it came to covering conflicts, the commercially-driven appetite for discrete, large-scale and impactful events, as the basis for each new story, tended to downgrade and occlude conflict dynamics operating in between such events – and driving the processes that led up to them.

The concern was over the meanings audiences would most likely make in response to such a pattern of representation, the influence on their expectations as to what would happen next and the spectrum of possible conflict responses. With no opportunity to appreciate underlying relations of cause and effect, there would be no apparent point in considering how to divert these along different paths. ‘People act on their image of reality,’ Johan wrote – and the media, with their daily coverage of selected conflicts and wide reach, were a good candidate as ‘number one image-former’.

News about conflict could, therefore, be seen as a problem requiring a solution. Mainstream coverage was oriented towards violence, propaganda, elites and victory – so the remedial strategy of peace journalism would adopt the opposite of these. Hence the famous four orientations towards peace (and conflict as opposed to merely violence), truth, people and solutions. These, Johan summarised – at Annabel’s request – on a single sheet of A4, for circulation at the Taplow event.

Johan himself was principal speaker, of course, to an audience composed mainly of journalists. Two of the more senior participants came from one of Britain’s biggest newspapers, the Mirror Group, then hurriedly looking to recalibrate coverage of and from Northern Ireland (or the North of Ireland) in light of the peace process underway there.

Since then, peace journalism has gone through the three phases of response famously set out by Arthur Schopenhauer to any significant new idea: first ridicule, then violent opposition then acceptance as self- evident.

The call for improvements in coverage of Gaza, signed by nearly 300 Australian journalists last year,1 reads as an almost uncanny recapitulation of Johan’s main points from a quarter-of-a-century earlier, so maybe we are now in the third phase. Back in 1997, however, there were some signs of friction.

I had invited my boss, Nick Pollard – then newly-appointed head of news at British Sky Broadcasting – to give a guest presentation, which dealt largely in generalities about the strengths and weaknesses of television journalism. The wisdom of this decision began to be called into question when Johan, frustrated at this diversion from what he saw as the main thread of discussion, informed Nick he was talking ‘bullshit’.

Later, I was honoured to take up Johan’s invitation to join him as co- facilitator in a training workshop in Amman for journalists from Jordan, Egypt, Israel and Palestine, sponsored by the official Danish aid agency, DANIDA – a chance to appreciate at close quarters the incisive quality of his versatile and creative thinking.

By 2010, I had exchanged life as a TV reporter and presenter for a university post and organised the biennial conference of IPRA, the International Peace Research Association, at Sydney University. To be in the packed auditorium for Johan’s spellbinding keynote presentation was to feel the hairs on the back of one’s neck prickle with intellectual excitement.

On that same trip to Australia, Johan joined me to launch our monograph, Reporting conflict: New directions in peace journalism, published by Queensland University Press, at a venerable institution of Sydney literary life, the iconic Gleebooks. It is from that event that the picture is taken, with Frencie Carreon, a Philippines journalist and war correspondent who was studying, at that time, for her PhD under my supervision.

Johan Galtung’s thinking is every bit as vital now as at any time during his long, productive and highly influential life as one of the great thinkers of our age. To follow stories in the Western media of conflict in Gaza or Ukraine – to mention just two current examples – is to feel the familiar pressure from propaganda, to reject understanding and explanation as tantamount to justification and excuse-making for the conduct of the parties.

Reopening those distinctions is crucial to making, keeping and building peace. Johan’s signature concepts – of structural and cultural violence and, indeed, peace journalism itself – are, in turn, crucial in doing so. That they now loom large in mainstream debates is testimony to his prescience in raising, elaborating and developing them in his role as an intellectual pioneer.

Note

1 See https://form.jotform.com/233177455020046

Note on the contributor

Jake Lynch is the most published and most cited author on peace journalism (seven books and over sixty articles and book chapters). His work has appeared in field-leading scholarly journals, and been translated into languages including Korean, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Arabic, and Bahasa Indonesia. He served as secretary general of the International Peace Research Association, 2010-2012. Jake has devised and delivered training courses for professional editors and reporters in many countries, for clients including major official aid agencies. For contributions to both theory and practice, he was awarded the 2017 Luxembourg Peace Prize, by the Schengen Peace Foundation. Before joining the University of Sydney, in 2007, Jake was in journalism, with spells as a political correspondent for Sky News and Australia correspondent for the Independent, culminating in a role as on-air presenter at BBC World TV News. He won five international awards for his documentary film, Soldiers of peace, narrated by Michael Douglas. In 2020, Jake was Leverhulme Visiting Professor at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations of Coventry University. His debut novel, Blood on the stone, an historical mystery thriller set in Oxford of the 17th century, was published 2019 by Unbound Books.

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