Hidden agendas

John Pilger released his new book in 2004, Tell Me No Lies: Investigative Journalism and its Triumphs. The collection contained numerous examples of exemplary reporting from the likes of Seymour Hersh, Robert Fisk, Greg Palast, Edward Said, Anna Politkovskaya, Martha Gellhorn and Pilger himself. Pilger wrote in the introduction of an age when questioning authority was never more essential. “Secretive power loathes journalists who do their job: who push back screens, peer behind facades, lift rocks”, he wrote.

Then this gem:

“[A] favourite quotation belongs to the great Irish muckraker Claud Cockburn. “Never believe anything”, he wrote, “until it is officially denied.” That the state lies routinely is not what the media courses teach. If they did – and the evidence has never been in greater abundance – the cynicism that many young journalists believe ordains them as journalists would not be directed at their readers, viewers or listeners, but at those in false authority.”

The Sydney Morning Herald published a positive review of the book on January 1, 2005. Written by Wendy Bacon, associate professor in journalism at the University of Technology, Sydney, it concluded that questioning the established orthodoxy was often what distinguished truly great journalism.

The following story reveals the duplicity of Australia’s mainstream media, in this case the Melbourne Age, and the hidden agendas that frequently operate. It has not been published before.


The Age printed a review of the book on November 27, 2004 (no link available). It was written by Michael Gawenda, former editor-in-chief of The Age and current Washington correspondent for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. Here’s his review:

The rants of a conspiracy theorist

John Pilger is a visiting professor at Cornell University in New York. His journalism is widely published in Britain, in the US and occasionally in Australia. His books sell in their thousands. His documentaries are shown on television all over the world. He is a success. Yet he writes as if he is the quintessential outsider who has suffered terribly for his craft, for his integrity, for being the voice of the down-trodden and the powerless.

Most journalists, according to Pilger, have been tamed by media corporations that employ them. The corporations do not serve the public interest; they serve the interests of the powerful, the rich, the corporations that run the world economy and most of all, the interests of the US, a brutal, ruthless imperial power, the 21st century incarnation of fascism.

Not Pilger. No one tames Pilger. His journalism is angry, self-righteous and fiercely polemical. There are no complexities in Pilger’s journalism, no shades of grey. There are good guys and bad guys and the bad guys are invariably very bad indeed. Come to think of it, Pilger often sounds like George Bush in this, though they would have different takes on who are the good guys and who are the bad ones.

Frankly, I find his journalism tiresome and his writing over-blown and often close to a rant. He loves conspiracies. Nothing is as it seems. Nothing is ever a cock-up. He reads the report of the 9/11 Commission and what does he see? That senior Bush Administration officials including Vice-President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld could have done something about the hijacked aircraft but didn’t because they wanted something terrible to happen so they could get on with their real goal; the war against Iraq.

How does Pilger reach this conclusion? Well, the various agencies charged with homeland security failed to stop the September 11 attacks. He concedes, reluctantly, that they could have just cocked things up, but in Pilger’s world, only tame journalists working for corrupt corporations would pretend to believe such nonsense. One of the occupational hazards of investigative journalism is the tendency to believe that nothing ever is as it seems, that everything that happens can be explained by some sort of conspiracy. Sometimes of course, it can be so. Great investigative journalism is capable of changing the way we see the world. It can reveal how the exercise of power is often accompanied by an amoral ruthlessness, how greed can be all consuming, how a lack of a moral and ethical compass can lead people to commit the most appalling acts of betrayal. It can force us to confront the inexplicable – the inhumanity that human beings are capable of, the almost unimaginable cruelty.

Sometimes, however – I’d say most of the time – the world is chaotic, human beings are full of contradictions, good is not in a clear-cut battle with evil and shit sometimes happens for no discernible reason. Some of what I would describe as investigative journalism – the work of, say, Helen Garner in Australia, Jeffrey Goldberg for The New Yorker, even Tom Wolfe before he became a second-rate novelist, would, I suspect, not be considered investigative journalism by Pilger. In a review of several books of journalism by A.J. Liebling in The New York Review of Books, Russell Baker writes that Liebling worked in an age when “all good journalists knew they had plenty to be modest about. The modest style required letting the reader know that the reporter was not godlike . . . but merely another frail human, maybe too woefully human to be entirely trustworthy. Liebling almost always made his presence felt, conceding that he was capable of error . . .”

Wonderful. I wonder how many journalists today would agree that they are frail human beings, capable of getting things wrong and, more importantly, that the best they can do and report what they see and hear and leave it to their readers to decide what it all means – if it means anything at all.

Liebling is not represented in Pilger’s new book, a selection of articles by some of the best-known investigative reporters of the past half century, with an introduction by Pilger and with a short piece by him setting the context for each article. Neither is Garner, Goldberg, Wolfe – nor for that matter, Norman Mailer, whose journalism in the 1960s and ’70s, unlike his fiction, is still worth reading. Among the 30 pieces in the book, there’s Martha Gellhorn’s description of the Dachau concentration camp on liberation, Wilfred Burchett’s report from Hiroshima after the bomb, Seymour Hersh’s article on the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, the CBS broadcaster Ed Murrow’s attacks on McCarthyism and a few pieces by Robert Fisk, The Independent’s long-time Middle East correspondent.

There is some really good journalism in the book – Hersh’s My Lai investigation is outstanding as is Linda Mervin’s piece on the Rwandan genocide – and most of the pieces, for working journalists at least, are well worth reading.

I could have done without Pilger’s outrage in the introduction and his take on the context of each article. But those who like their journalism over-blown, will, undoubtedly enjoy the Pilger sermons in this book.


A few days after publication, Pilger wrote a letter to the Age in response, but it was rejected, he was told, “because we don’t run responses to reviews.”

This is a copy of Pilger’s letter:

“The headline over Michael Gawenda’s “review” of the collection I edited, Tell Me No Lies (November 27) is “The rants of a conspiracy theorist”. This is how the Age represents 620 pages of some of the finest investigative journalism ever written. The introduction to the book refers to a degradation of modern journalism of which Gawenda’s abuse is a vivid example. Apart from a few grudging words acknowledging the journalistic giants in the book, his article is both false and dishonest.

“He refers to the great reporter Linda Melvern as Linda Mervin. He says I describe the United States as “the incarnation of fascism”; I have never written anything of the kind. To substantiate his thesis that I am a conspiracy theorist, he totally misrepresents an article of mine which refers to the Kean Commission on 9/11 and which is not part of the book, although he gives the impression that it is. This deception is compounded by the fact that the article has never been published in Australia.

“None of this is surprising. In 1999, during the NATO attack on Yugoslavia, Gawenda, then editor of The Age, suppressed a piece of mine from the Guardian in London, saying that he didn’t want “any of that anti-war stuff in the paper.” Thereafter, under his editorship, almost all my syndicated work was rejected by that paper that once carried my world exclusive reports from Cambodia and East Timor. Such is the malaise of modern journalism, which Tell Me No Lies highlights, that this important collection was given out for review to one whose hatchet job was assured. Readers of The Age deserve better.”


The week before the review’s publication, Pilger was in Melbourne for an Age sponsored event promoting Tell Me No Lies. The paper’s literary editor, Jason Steger, introduced Pilger and by all accounts offered a warm welcome. Pilger then wrote the following letter to him on November 29:

“When we spoken on Friday at the lunch, you knew very well that Gawenda had done his dishonest hatchet job on Tell Me No Lies. You would have signed off on the disgraceful headline. The corruption is pervasive; I have just learned that my letter to The Age, setting the record straight, is suppressed because “we don’t run responses to reviews.” Catch 22.

“However, your duplicity will not go unrecognised, be assured. I am including this episode, your role and Gawenda’s, as a telling example of why press freedom in Australia stands at 50th in the world in a paper I am giving to media colleges here and in the UK and at Cornell University in the United States. This will form part of the introduction of my new book, due for completion in 2005, to be published in the UK, the US and here.”

UPDATE: I have published the above correspondence and review to underscore the lengths to which dissenting voices are routinely shunned in the Australian media, especially a major figure like Pilger. He is one of our finest reporters, inquisitive, gutsy and consistent. Lest anybody misunderstand my intentions, the above example is a perfect case to me of the need for figures such as Pilger. The Age should be ashamed of its behaviour – I hope this example exposes them just a little.

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