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Honest And Compassionate: The Reporting Of John Pilger


One of the guiding principles of the western liberal democracies is that the crimes of our ‘enemies’ must be scrupulously held up for account and condemnation, while our own crimes are ignored, minimised or cast as examples of ‘humanitarian intervention’. Or as Prime Minister Tony Blair put it, even as the people of Afghanistan were being subjected to a massive onslaught of US/UK bombing:

‘Whatever faults we have, Britain is a very moral nation with a strong sense of right and wrong. That moral fibre will defeat the fanaticism of these terrorists and their supporters.’ By definition, the ‘moral’ nations of the west never indulge in terrorism, only in counter-terrorism.

The British mainstream media, with significant and brave exceptions, champion the myth that British foreign policy is shaped by benign intent and that on the odd occasion when things ‘go wrong’, it is merely a mistake or an honest failure.

Thankfully, there are still journalists and documentary-makers of the calibre of John Pilger to puncture such myths. Shaped by his experiences reporting from the frontline of earlier abuses of western power, notably in Vietnam and Cambodia, Pilger has long questioned ‘the nature of power imposed from a distance, not just by those above the clouds, but by impeccable, faraway figures who order the mass killing of people, and by those who justify their crimes by representing the victims as terrorists, or merely as numbers, without names, faces and histories, or as the inevitable casualties of a superior morality.’

The superior morality, of course, belongs to that of the conquering western powers who portray themselves self-servingly as crusaders of democracy, freedom and human rights, all intrinsically linked to the doctrine of free-market capitalism.

The New Rulers of the World, John Pilger’s new book (Verso, London, 2002), covers much ground in four major essays. The first one – ‘The Model Pupil’ – reveals how General Suharto’s bloody seizure of power in Indonesia in the mid-1960s, which resulted in the deaths of up to a million ‘Communist sympathisers’ (as ‘The Independent’ deceptively described the victims recently), led to the imposition of an economy planned to western design. This was the true, and largely unreported, origin of economic globalisation in this part of Asia.

The title of the book is itself enlightening. As John Pilger told Media Lens in an interview last year: ‘a lot of the people who are in the broad anti-globalisation coalition subscribe to the view that the new rulers of the world are the multinational corporations. I don’t agree. I think it’s a combination of state power – with state power still dominant – and the multinational corporations. The two are really wedded together. It’s risky to start describing the world as simply run by corporations.’ (www.medialens.org/articles_2001/dc_Pilger_interview.html).

To take but one example, the arms trade is only possible courtesy of massive state support. According to a briefing report by the UK-based Campaign Against the Arms Trade (www.caat.org.uk), the UK government (i.e. the UK taxpayer) handed over a net subsidy of £763m to the British arms export industry in 2000/2001. A major public contribution was made to the Export Credits Guarantee Department (£227m) as ‘insurance’ to cover the risk of arms export payments not being met by foreign buyers (many of them western client states such as Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Indonesia).

The book’s second chapter ‘Paying the Price’ describes the terrible suffering of ordinary Iraqis as a result of the west’s medieval twelve-year long embargo since the Gulf War. Pilger exposes the reality of the supposed Iraqi threat: namely that the ‘threat’ is a propaganda tool deployed with even greater vigour, post-September 11, by the Bush administration for the benefit of big business.

This deceptive propaganda fits neatly into the scaremongering conception of ‘total war’ (successor to the outdated ‘Cold War’ myth), all the while filling the coffers of military contractors Raytheon, Alliant Tech Systems, Northrop Gruman and Lockheed Martin. In a genuinely free-thinking society, such facts would be well-known. Instead, the dearth of radical dissent in the mainstream is highlighted by Pilger when he asks: ‘who will say the “war on terrorism” is fraudulent: that its prosecutors are themselves terrorists from a greater league and that their actions will, at the very least, produce more carnage and martyrs?’.

The third chapter, ‘The Great Game’, illuminates the way in which barely-disguised state power provides the conditions and privileges that protect western markets, while allowing western corporations, on the back of the American military machine, to intervene where they like in the world. Again, to reiterate, corporate power is dependent on state power.

As the influential New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, faithful watchdog of US power, notes in one of his more honest interludes: ‘The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies is called the US Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.’

The final chapter, ‘The Chosen Ones’, sees Pilger return to his home country of Australia to continue a thirty-year engagement with the struggle of the Aboriginal people against the apartheid behind the picture postcard impression of Australia. He reports the anguished comments of Dr Richard Murray, whose patients are all Aboriginal:

‘By most measures of indigenous health, Australia is last in the world. The Aboriginal people suffer from diseases we saw the end of in the Edinburgh slums in the last century, like rheumatic fever. Here it is the highest ever reported in the world. And diabetes, which affects up to a quarter of the adult Aboriginal population, causing kidney failure and diabetic blindness.’

The cause? ‘Poverty and dispossession’, answers Dr Murray, pointing out that ninety per cent of overcrowded households in Australia are Aboriginal (who comprise just two per cent of the population). Moreover, the Australian government spends about 25 per cent less per capita on the health of the Aboriginal people compared to the rest of the population.

John Pilger’s reporting and analysis is rooted in compassion for the victims of the abuses of western power. A common thread running through ‘New Rulers’ is the failure of the mainstream media to report honestly and accurately on such abuses.

This is no conspiracy. ‘It is simply the way the system works’, emphasises Pilger. It is a system that ensures ‘access’ and ‘credibility’ to those voices who are eager ‘to credit more ethical intent to government policy-makers than the policy-makers themselves.’

Pilger also takes academia to task for remaining largely silent. ‘In politics departments, the task of liberal realists is to ensure that western imperialism is interpreted as crisis management, rather than the cause of crisis and its escalation. By never recognising western state terrorism, their complicity is assured. To state this simple truth is deemed unscholarly; better to say nothing.’

Fortunately for us, and for the victims of oppressive western state-corporate power everywhere, John Pilger is one of those rare exceptions – a tenacious and courageous reporter – who is unafraid to say what needs to be said. The choice for the reader, as ever, is whether or not to act upon it.

David Cromwell is co-editor of Media Lens (sign up for free media alerts at www.MediaLens.org) and author of Private Planet: Corporate Plunder and the Fight Back. Further details at www.private-planet.com

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