John Pilger Was a Tireless Critic of Western Imperialism

The reporter John Pilger, who died at the end of 2023, showed what a life committed to attacking the powerful through journalism and taking the side of the oppressed looks like.

John Pilger addresses a mass antiwar demonstration marking the 10th anniversary of the Afghanistan war, in Trafalgar Square, London, on October 8, 2011. (Ian Nicholson / PA Images via Getty Images)

Journalism lost one of its brightest, undimmed stars when John Pilger died on the penultimate day of the old year.

Perhaps it was the fact that two of his great-great grandparents were Irish convicts transported to Australia that made him a champion of the underdog. For whatever reason, his loyalties were universally with the downtrodden: the indigenous people of his native Australia, the working class of the industrialized economies, the movements for national independence, and always the victims of the world’s great powers and their unrelenting war machines.

He made sixty documentary films and wrote extensively in the press, most famously in the Daily Mirror and the Guardian, the two most significant left-liberal newspapers in the UK. For his work, the industry rewarded him with countless awards, including Emmy’s and citations as Journalist of the Year and Reporter of the Year.

In the 1960s and 1970s he produced not only pages of copy for five million readers of the Daily Mirror but prime-time, mid-evening documentaries on ITV, one of Britain’s independent news channels. It was these TV documentaries that made him a household name but he was really, when it came right down to it, a print journalist to the tips of his fingers.

John had the newspaper journalist’s nose for a scoop and the tabloid reporter’s desire to communicate with the widest possible audience, especially an audience that included a majority of working people. These were qualities he shared with his great friend and his only peer, the investigative journalist Paul Foot. Both found themselves pushed out of the Mirror under the proprietorship of Robert Maxwell, the father of Ghislaine Maxwell and a former Labour MP who died under mysterious circumstances. Pilger’s only foray into into building an alternative to the mainstream media was the short-lived News on Sunday, his attempt to produce a worker-owned tabloid that was an alternative to the millionaire press.

His coverage of foreign affairs followed the arc of America’s imperial decline: from the disaster of the Vietnam War and the secret war in Cambodia through to Iraq and its calamitous aftermath across the Middle East. He never lost sight of the centrality of the Palestinian cause to the politics of the region, issuing his film Palestine Is Still the Issue in two different editions.

It was the Palestine film that caused his greatest rift with the mainstream media. ITV boss Michael Green attacked Pilger soon after it came out, falsely accusing him of antisemitism — a charge against which the official industry inquiry that followed vindicated him completely.

The neoliberal era made access to the mainstream media platforms more difficult. The amount of investigative journalism in print or on the airwaves was much reduced, often replaced by opinion-led, fact-lite columns, predominantly informed by right-of-center politics.

In this harsher environment, Pilger persisted. He never trimmed or compromised, never trivialized or avoided difficult questions. What is astounding is how often he still succeeded. His films told the story of Julian Assange, of whom he was an outspoken supporter; championed the National Health Service against the threat of privatization; and, in a landmark ITV documentary, he warned of The Coming War on China.

John never accepted that there should be a wall between journalism and political activism. He was an unapologetic supporter of the Stop the War Coalition and the international campaign to free Julian Assange. He did not think, as some left journalists do, that what they write in their professional capacity should be the limit of their political involvement. That was a political arrogance John never shared. John thought that a journalist, like any other worker, in so far as they are politically committed, should know that effective political action must take place above and beyond whatever they work at to pay the bills.

John’s death has brought many glowing tributes. The Guardian obituary recorded that “the impact of Pilger’s journalism was enormous.” The Daily Mirror’s Kevin Maguire wrote that Pilger was “one of the best. Brave insightful, challenging authority and instinctively on the side of the underdog.” But the praise was not universal. As if to show that John had the right enemies as well as the right friends, both the Times and the Telegraph wrote hit pieces.

The columnist Oliver Kamm, Tony Blair aficionado and signatory to the founding statement of the hawkish right-wing Henry Jackson Society, provided the Telegraph with a piece entitled “John Pilger was an apologist for genocide — we should not celebrate his journalism.” Quite a claim against a journalist who famously exposed genocide in Cambodia by a commentator who, at this moment, is supporting Israeli massacres in Gaza.

Kamm went on to suggest that in later life John’s radical views had excluded him from the mainstream media and consigned him to the more marginal publications of the Left. The claim is factually incorrect since John’s The Coming War on China was aired on ITV in 2016 and was well received by critics.

But to the extent that John, or voices like his, find it harder to make it into the mainstream it is not because they are any more extreme or radical than they once were. Rather, it is because the mainstream has shifted rightward during the time covered by John’s career from the 1960s to the present day.

Investigative journalism, whether in the print press or the broadcast media, is much less prominent than it once was. It is difficult to imagine now that a major TV channel, one of only three at the time, would give a documentary spot that ran for an hour before the main evening news to John Pilger. And impossible to think that it would happen today, even despite the proliferation of TV channels. It is equally difficult to imagine that both John Pilger and Paul Foot were employed at the same time on Hugh Cudlipp’s Daily Mirror, their offices at either end of the same corridor.

The challenge that John’s death leaves us with is to emulate him. To write in the knowledge that there is no neutral or unbiased journalism. The playing field is never level, but always tilted in favor of the rich and powerful. True objectivity, his work taught us, is to be found in attempting to compensate for that structural inequality by always siding with the underdog. And, more than this, that to do so requires an open identification with, and participation in the struggles of, those attempting to end exploitation and oppression.

John held these views fiercely and unapologetically. He despised not only the rich and powerful, but those who pretended to oppose them but in reality accommodated them and, eventually, came to be like them. For these reason he especially detested Blair and Keir Starmer.

But for all John’s implacable hostility to government ministers, military officers, CIA spokespeople, or the CEO’s of wealthy corporations, he was a warm, generous friend to comrades and allies. He never hesitated to support and promote the work of others, to open his vast book of contacts to sympathetic journalists or political activists. And he did so enthusiastically and with good humor.

In losing John, journalism has lost one of its greats, and the Left has lost one of its very best.