John Pilger’s Reporting Demolished Western Propaganda’s Myths

John Pilger, who died on December 30, had an extraordinary career as a reporter. His journalism informed countless people about the catastrophic impact of US foreign policy during and after the Cold War, from Vietnam and Cambodia to Nicaragua and East Timor.

Investigative journalist John Pilger at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August 2007. (Colin McPherson / Getty Images)

There have already been some fine tributes to the Australian journalist John Pilger, who died on December 30 at the age of eighty-four, giving an overview of his career. What I want to do here is offer a more personal perspective on the impact of his work. Pilger’s print and broadcast journalism had a very wide distribution over the course of several decades, so my experience of engaging with his work is probably one that many people have shared.

During the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, Pilger was a foreign correspondent for the Daily Mirror, a mass-circulation tabloid with several million readers. He also produced a series of television documentaries that reached a mass audience in Britain.

By the time I was old enough to encounter his journalism, in the late 1990s, Pilger no longer worked for the Mirror, although he still contributed articles to publications like the Guardian and the New Statesman. His appearances on TV were also becoming rarer, so my first point of contact came through his books.

When I was fourteen, with a keen interest in the world but a very limited base of knowledge, my mother passed on a copy of Pilger’s 1986 book, Heroes, which she had on her shelves. It was a summary of his reporting for the Mirror and British TV over the space of two decades, from the 1960s to the 1980s.

Heroes served as a crash course in global history during that period and a devastating retort to the neoliberal, Atlanticist triumphalism that took root after the end of the Cold War. There could be many different routes to the same understanding of the world, but Pilger’s book was the one I happened to follow, so I want to give a sense of how revelatory it was.

The Bankstown Bee Attack

To illustrate what he called “the fallibility and farce of much of journalism,” Pilger started off by recalling one of his first outings for a local newspaper in Sydney at the age of eighteen. The editorial team received word that a swarm of bees had taken up residency beside someone’s car on the high street of Bankstown.

Pilger arrived on the scene and went in for a closer look in search of a better news angle. His only achievement was to hand a rival newspaper its front-page lead: a photo of Pilger himself with the bloodcurdling headline “BEES TERROR: MAN HURT.”

The Bankstown bee attack story has acquired some extra layers of poignancy since Heroes was published. Even in a city as large as Sydney, you are unlikely to find two local newspapers in the contemporary media landscape staffed with enough reporters to cover a suburban bee infestation. Pilger’s route into the media as a teenage apprentice straight out of high school is for the most part closed off to would-be journalists today.

Most of Heroes covered Pilger’s work for the Mirror after he moved to London in the early ’60s. Pilger reported on some of the key political events in the United States and the UK during that period, from the assassination of Robert Kennedy to the British miners’ strike. But his work as a foreign correspondent took him much further afield, to Vietnam and Cambodia, Eritrea and Palestine, El Salvador and Nicaragua, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union.

There was a clear political perspective running through these chapters, even though Pilger offered very little discussion of ideology as such. If you wanted a detailed discussion of the big issues that divided the twentieth-century left — social democracy versus communism, Joseph Stalin versus Leon Trotsky, the post-Stalin USSR versus Maoist China — you’d have to look elsewhere.

The theory on display in Heroes flowed directly from the events that Pilger recounted firsthand. From his perspective, the Cold War had not been a struggle between good and evil, democracy and dictatorship. It was a contest for global influence between two imperial powers that were equally contemptuous of democracy and human rights when it suited their interests.

To back up this argument, the book simply described what the superpowers had been doing and how it affected millions of people around the world during the Cold War. There could be no better illustration of Antonio Gramsci’s maxim that telling the truth is a revolutionary act.

Pawns in the Game

The tiny African country of Eritrea was emblematic for Pilger. As he pointed out, its independence movement had started off fighting against the US-backed dictatorship of Haile Selassie. Now, in the 1980s, it had to confront the Soviet-backed dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam. The planes dropping bombs on guerrilla camps came from the USSR instead of the United States, but otherwise very little had changed:

Of the thirty-four wars fought since 1945, Eritrea’s is the only war to which none of the reporter’s short-hand labels will stick. “Pro-West,” “pro-Soviet,” “Marxist,” etc.: all are seen to be meaningless because Eritrea’s enemies have come at her from over every ideological horizon, from both “imperialist” and “revolutionary” Ethiopia, from both the United States and the Soviet Union and their respective clients, Israel and Cuba. The struggle of this nation of beleaguered people is not only heroic in the classic sense but a negation of the hoary, though still fashionable, Kissinger view that all the world is a chess game in which the small, resource-impoverished nations are pawns and can be moved at will, or declared expendable.

Pilger was one of the first journalists to go into Cambodia after the ouster of the Khmer Rouge, and his reporting for the Mirror had a huge impact on public opinion in Britain. The country’s experience was another object lesson in the cynicism of great-power politics. In theory, Pol Pot’s movement was the most bloodthirsty off-shoot of twentieth-century communism, but that didn’t stop the governments of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher from supporting the Khmer Rouge in the 1980s because they were sworn enemies of Vietnam.

Anyone who describes the impact of US foreign policy in Africa, Asia, and Latin America during the Cold War is liable to be accused of holding “anti-American” or “anti-Western” views, so it’s worth stressing that Pilger judged the United States and the USSR by exactly the same moral and political standards. This is an approach that the Reaganite functionary Jeane Kirkpatrick once denounced in bilious terms as “moral equivalence.”

Pilger traveled undercover behind the Iron Curtain to report on the activity of Czech and Soviet dissidents, which is far more than professional Cold Warriors like Kirkpatrick ever did. But he refused to accept the stultifying ideological framework that presented the United States as a morally superior force in world affairs by its very nature and irrespective of what it actually did.

Once you ditch that framework, comforting morality tales about the Cold War and its various flash points collapse like a house of cards. It becomes clear, for example, that the United States invaded Vietnam to prop up a brutal and corrupt dictatorship, employing massive, intentional violence against Vietnamese civilians on a horrifying scale. The purpose of US intervention in El Salvador during the 1980s was to keep another dictatorship in power through the deployment of ruthless and sadistic terror. Heroes documented the horrors that Washington inflicted upon these and many other countries in the name of freedom.

Pilger’s chapter on Nicaragua offered a rare moment of optimism. He welcomed the ways in which the Sandinistas had departed from the Soviet model of political transformation: there were no mass executions after the overthrow of Anastasio Somoza’s regime, and the new government held free elections in 1984, at a time when the United States was orchestrating a campaign of terrorism by the Contras and Reagan was threatening to launch a full-blown invasion.

By the time I read the book, however, the combination of US sanctions and Contra violence against civilian targets had wrecked the Nicaraguan economy and broken the morale of its people, resulting in victory for a US-backed coalition in the elections of 1990. Within a few years, men like Elliott Abrams and John Negroponte would be applying the skills they had honed on the killing fields of Central America to fresh pastures in the Middle East as part of the “war on terror.”

The Liberation of East Timor

After finishing Heroes, I soon worked my way through Distant Voices and Hidden Agendas, two subsequent books by Pilger that gave a bracingly critical view of global politics at the apogee of US power in the 1990s. Distant Voices drew upon Pilger’s reporting from East Timor for his 1994 television documentary, Death of a Nation: The Timor Conspiracy. Nobody could take an honest look at what was being done to the Timorese people and still believe that the world system under US hegemony was based on respect for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.

Death of a Nation is an electrifying piece of work. Pilger, who was now in his fifties, made a clandestine journey to East Timor so he could report on the staggering, murderous brutality of Indonesia’s occupation, in place since 1975. The United States and its allies, Britain and Australia, did not merely turn a blind eye to the crimes of the Indonesian dictator Suharto. They actively enabled those crimes, supplying Indonesia with the weapons it needed to suppress the Timorese resistance.

At the time when East Timor declared its independence from Portugal in the 1970s, Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger considered Suharto to be a precious ally in a region where they had recently lost several client states, and they were delighted to endorse the invasion of one of Asia’s smallest countries. By the 1990s, Western governments could no longer use the Cold War as a threadbare excuse for their complicity with mass murder, but there was no change of policy in Washington, Canberra, or London.

As part of the documentary, Pilger conducted an interview with the British Conservative politician Alan Clark, who had approved arms sales to Indonesia as a cabinet minister. Clark was unusually frank about the amorality of his outlook on such matters:

Pilger: Did it bother you personally that this British equipment was causing such mayhem and human suffering?

Clark: No, not in the slightest, it never entered my head. You tell me that this was happening — I didn’t hear about it or know about it.

Pilger: Well, even if I hadn’t told you it was happening, the fact that we supply highly effective equipment to a regime like that is not a consideration, as far as you’re concerned. It’s not a personal consideration. I ask the question because I read you are a vegetarian, and you are quite seriously concerned about the way animals are killed.

Clark: Yeah.

Pilger: Doesn’t that concern extend to the way humans, albeit foreigners, are killed?

Clark: Curiously not. No.

Death of a Nation was broadcast on ITV, one of Britain’s national television networks, and widely distributed in other countries. It had a huge impact on public opinion and helped nurture an international solidarity movement with the Timorese people.

When an independence referendum was held in East Timor after the fall of Suharto, the new Indonesian regime planned to use murderous violence to suppress the demand for national self-determination. It was the solidarity movement and the support it received from a handful of governments, such as those of Portugal and Ireland, which ultimately made it impossible for Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and the Australian premier John Howard to go along with Jakarta’s scheme. Pilger thus made a real contribution through his journalism to the Timorese freedom struggle when the world’s most powerful states were ranged against it.

There can sometimes be a tendency for people to look back at the 1990s as if it were a short-lived golden age before the 9/11 attacks, the never-ending war on terror, and the renewal of great-power conflict between Washington and Moscow. But the case of East Timor reminds us of what supposedly progressive politicians like Clinton and Blair chose to do when they possessed seemingly unlimited freedom to act on the world stage. The decisions they made during the period that was supposed to inaugurate the “end of history” made a huge contribution to the ugliness and brutality of today’s geopolitical landscape.

The mass murder of Palestinians in Gaza today is another object lesson in the reality that lurks beneath the rhetoric of Western politicians. Across the whole period since the 1960s, few individuals did more than John Pilger to bring home that reality to a mass audience, and the impact of his reporting will be felt for many years to come.