During his acceptance speech for the Sydney Peace Prize in 2009, Australian journalist, author and film-maker John Pilger articulated a worldview that he has vociferously opposed during a career spanning more than 50 years. “Democracy has become a business plan,” he said, “with a bottom line for every human activity, every dream, every decency, every hope. The main parliamentary parties are now devoted to the same economic policies – socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor – and the same foreign policy of servility to endless war.”
Pilger’s decades-long work in print and television has transformed him into one of the most successful and awarded Australian journalists in the modern era, yet this has not brought him universal praise from his media colleagues or a profession that often prefers safe insiders and embedded “realities”. Pilger is too confrontational towards state power and his industry to be widely adored and he embraces being the eternal dissident.
In the introduction to a 2004 collection of fine investigative journalism from around the world, Tell Me No Lies, edited by Pilger, he warned that the proliferation of public relations forced reporters to take an even more adversarial position towards governments and corporate power. Political and historical context is everything and Pilger rightly demanded more discussion about the “hundreds of illegal [American] ‘covert operations’, many of them bloody” that have denied political and economic self-determination to much of the world.
Pilger has spent years visiting the sites of these often silent wars, genocides and occupations from East Timor to Palestine and Australia to Vietnam. He has never been a cheerleader for “our” side and his journalism is stronger because of it.
In his classic 1986 book, Heroes, Pilger wrote that he had “grown up in one of the most fortunate cities on earth”. Born in Sydney in 1939 to socialist parents Elsie and Claude, he was brought up in Bondi and developed a love of swimming that continued his entire life. With a working class background, his journalism career began as a copy boy on the now defunct Sydney Sun newspaper.
As a cadet on Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, Pilger soon discovered what he viewed as the dark heart of modern journalism. Writing in Heroes, he explained that “writing one thing and believing another was the way the system worked and to do otherwise was to risk not working at all.” He lamented many young journalists expressing “fake cynicism towards their craft, their readers and themselves.” It wasn’t surprising that he soon left the parochial shores of Sydney and followed the exodus of Australians to London.
Working as a journalist on the Daily Mirror, Pilger often found himself on the frontline of history. He witnessed the 1968 assassination of Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles. His critical reporting during the Vietnam War, including his first TV documentary in 1970, The Quiet Mutiny, documented declining morale within the US military for the bloody conflict.
His 1979 film, Year Zero: The Silent Death of Cambodia, exclusively revealed the devastation of that nation’s people after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Massive public reaction to the documentary led to millions of aid dollars being raised for the growing famine. Pilger didn’t just blame the genocidal Khmer Rouge for the catastrophe but also Washington for illegally bombing the state and creating the environment for the mass murderers to take power.
In his book, Distant Voices in 1992, Pilger recounted arriving in Phnom Penh in 1979 and “taking no photographs; incredulity saw to that. I had no sense of people, of even the remnants of a population; the first human shapes I glimpsed seemed incoherent shapes, detached from the city itself.” Pilger’s work on Cambodia was inarguably some of his most successful and he made five films about the country.
Pilger has long shone a harsh light on his birth country’s indigenous population. In his 1998 book, Hidden Agendas, he explained that “until we white Australians give back to the first Australians their nationhood, we can never claim our own.” Pilger has made many documentaries about Australia including Utopia, released in 2013. It was a scathing examination of the black population that remains invisible to the vast majority of Australians and the world. He showed desolate living conditions and apartheid-South African level incarceration rates for the nation’s first peoples.
Pilger has been routinely criticised for lacking objectivity, a concept he has dismissed for decades as the position of corporate journalists who routinely forget that they should be reporting on and defending the most marginalised citizens in society rather than siding or socialising with prime ministers, presidents and officials. He has been unapologetic about his defence of Wikileaks’ Julian Assange along with his criticism of liberal heroes such as Barack Obama. Noam Chomsky has called Pilger’s journalism “a beacon of light in often dark times.”
Upon winning the Order of Timor-Leste in 2017, in recognition of his work advocating for the East Timorese people during the Indonesian military occupation backed by Washington, London and Canberra, Pilger showed why he’s one of the best advocates for the forgotten. “Australia owes Timor Leste a huge debt, some would say, billions of dollars in reparations”, he said. “Australia should hand over, unconditionally, all royalties collected since [former Australian Foreign Minister] Gareth Evans toasted Suharto’s dictatorship while flying over the graves of its victims.”
Still engaged and angry in his seventh decade, Pilger is a rare journalist who has never sold out and never curbed his views to accommodate corporate donors. It’s no wonder officialdom has loathed him for decades yet readers and viewers across the world have often embraced his message.
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist who has written for the Guardian, New York Times and many other publications. He is author of My Israel Question and Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe and writer and co-producer of the documentary, Disaster Capitalism.