David Cromwell interview with John Pilger

By David Cromwell

David Cromwell: First of all, congratulations on your recent award in Sweden [the prestigious Monismanien Prize for 2001 – known as Sweden’s ‘Nobel Prize’ for Journalism].

John Pilger: Thank you! Sweden is becoming a bit of a second home to me. I’m published there and books are translated. I’ve had a column published in one of the Swedish papers. I always find that good things happen when I go to Sweden!

DC: So you’re a bit of a regular there then?

JP: Oh yes. I’ve been there regularly and I have a column in Aftonbladet which is a daily Stockholm paper. And all the films are shown there.

DC: Pleased to hear it. I’d just like to begin, if I may, with the documentary’s accompanying press release which begins by saying: ‘Who really rules the world now? Is it governments or a handful of huge, multinational companies?’ Some would argue that those are questions already raised by the likes of Naomi Klein, George Monbiot and Noreena Hertz. So what’s different about what you’ve come up with?

JP: Well, I don’t know about ‘already’ but I think I’ve been raising them for quite a long time, actually.

DC: (laughs).

JP: Well, I don’t know about ‘different’. I think the whole issue of globalisation is now only becoming a public issue. And then it’s hardly a public issue in terms of the extent of the worldwide protest against globalisation. Most people in this country, and in other Western countries, are not aware that throughout most of the world – Latin America, especially – there is [an] extraordinary resistance movement and a very popular resistance movement against the globalised economy. There was a plebiscite in Brazil – 10 million people voted to get the IMF out of Brazil. Bolivia – a sort of national revolt against the privatisation of water, and so on. These are all very significant.

George Monbiot is in my film, for instance. But 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.

DC : Well that’s a good point, isn’t it, because that argument implies that governments have already handed over their power to the multinationals which they haven’t.

JP: Well they haven’t. They haven’t. The United States government has never been more powerful. Capitalism in the United States depends on subsidy – always has. All the great corporations – the war industries, the great companies like General Electric, Cargill, the food grain corporation and so on. These are all the beneficiaries of massive government subsidy. A kind of socialism for the rich. That’s centralised state power. And that’s state patronage of great capital in the United States -[that] has been the engine room of globalisation.

DC: Yes, it’s a great phrase that: ‘socialism for the rich, and capitalism for the poor’. I’m not sure whether it was you or Noam Chomsky that came up with that one, but it’s a great phrase. It describes in a nutshell what’s happened. But something which is specific about your films that’s so powerful is that you often get access to top figures in the United Nations, or whoever it might be. With this specific film, have you interviewed figures in the World Bank and the IMF?

JP: Yes. I’ve interviewed the chief economists of both the World Bank and the IMF. But the film takes as its prime example, Indonesia. So, it’s a balance between telling the story of what globalisation has meant for Indonesians and an overarching theme of globalisation across the world, and what it means. It traces the little-known history of how globalisation began in Asia – and began in Indonesia. And it began in Indonesia in a bloodbath. Now, although historians and others who are interested are now aware that large numbers of people died when Suharto came to power in the mid 1960s, what is little known is the role of international capital. The film describes how in the wake of the Suharto seizure of power, which was backed by the United States and Britain, some of the most powerful capitalists in the world, the likes of David Rockefeller, convened – or rather it was Time magazine actually that convened – a secret meeting in Geneva in 1967, where Suharto’s ministers sat across the table from Rockefeller and various other people, like representatives of the Carnegie Foundation and the great banks in the United States, and the whole of the Indonesian economy was redesigned – in a week. And in fact various sections of it were – there were separate rooms – this was in a hotel. One room was transport, and another room was agriculture. So this was the direct result of the bloodbath in Indonesia the year before in which the United States and Britain had played important, supportive roles. Indonesia then fell under the control of a group called the Joint Inter-Governmental Working Group which was all the main Western governments – Japan, Australia, the World Bank and the IMF. They effectively guided the Suharto economy for many years, determining investment, debt, central bank policy, and so on. That was really the beginning of Indonesia as the ‘model pupil’ of globalisation which the World Bank described it as, shortly before the crash in ’98.

Indonesia’s a very good example because it brings in the roles of the World Bank, the IMF – of foreign investors, the exploitation of natural resources and of labour. So all the ingredients, if you like, of the globalised economy can be found in Indonesia.

It took some time to select the country to concentrate on. I had thought of doing an African country like Zambia which has been terribly burdened by debt and by structural adjustment programmes. But Indonesia has a wider range of afflictions.

DC: I’m just wondering – given that history, to what extent the figures are aware of that history, that you interviewed at the World Bank and the IMF. To what extent have they denied that history that you’ve just recounted to me?

JP: Well, I don’t know whether they’re aware of it or not. I don’t think it matters to them whether there’s a history or not. They are simply implementing a neoliberal policy and that’s their role. In terms of IMF and the World Bank, they’re implementing policies that were decided at Bretton Woods near the end of the Second World War. The United States then made it clear that what it wanted to do was to control the world economy. And it was Keynes, of course, who objected to this and came up with quite an imaginative idea of taxing creditor countries if they allowed debt to become too entrenched. He was worried about the world becoming seriously indebted which it now is. The United States told Britain that if its representative persisted with this line of thinking then they wouldn’t get the war loans they’d been promised. So that was that! The policy that has indebted so many countries – with the World Bank and the IMF and the Asia Development Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, and all these other institutions really imposing the conditions of the debt – that’s been around for a long time and I don’t think it matters to them how Indonesia fell into the globalised economy. But it matters to the Indonesians, of course, because they’ve been the victims of it.

DC: Once that kind of history has been recounted, as you’ve just done, it’s almost like hearing a message from Neptune because people in the street are just completely unaware of this. This is where we get to the issue of propaganda and censorship. It’s very difficult indeed to break through the filter system that exists and this is what your films are attempting to do. It’s such an appalling story that you’ve just recounted it brings to mind a quote from Noam Chomsky: ‘What is being reported blandly on the front pages would elicit ridicule and horror in a society with a genuinely free and democratic intellectual culture’. This is getting to the nub of the problem – that awful as poverty, injustice and inequity are, even the freedom of thought is being eroded away – and this has been a message, I think, of your films.

JP: It’s been eroded away mainly by two things. By the illusion that the mainstream media carries a great deal of diverse information, whereas in fact it carries a great deal of repetitive and politically safe information. The illusion that there is an information age, when in fact there is a media age in which there’s a great deal of media. But that doesn’t mean a great deal of information. Those are important distinctions.

The other thing is that it’s easier now to conduct the most effective censorship – that is censorship by omission – because there is the illusion of saturation [of] information. There is now a virulent censorship in the mainstream media, in my view. Every time I look at the mainstream media, I’m struck by this. The election campaign and the lack of real challenge to the politicians. There’s challenge to them within a very limited framework. Elections like this are similar to elections in totalitarian countries where you just get a rubber stamp. You’ve got now a single ideology state with two competing factions, both of them identical.

DC: Well, since you mentioned the election coverage this is something that I got from David Edwards. This was a report that came out from Peter Golding and colleagues at Loughborough University. They produced a shocking report in the last week that this election, the media coverage of various issues, the environment and foreign policy, for example, each represent less than 1 per cent of the coverage. To be precise, in the first three weeks of campaigning the environment comprised 0.8 per cent of election themes covered, defence 0.6 per cent, and employment 0.8 per cent. There has been virtually nothing about the so-called “ethical foreign policy” deception, or the “genocide” in East Timor and Iraq. That’s just astonishing. You couldn’t get a better performance from a totalitarian regime.

JP: Well they’re usually left out. And there might be a case made for people voting about the things that concern their lives, although if one has a world view it’s also about how the world is run. You mention there employment – that’s being left out. All the issues that actually directly touch people’s lives like the enormous insecurity about today’s so-called ‘booming economy’. The falsity of it – the absolute fakery of it. There’s a report by Bristol University recently which concluded that there are 5 million people living in absolute poverty in this country. And that almost half of all single parents are living in extreme poverty, and that probably the figure of children growing up in poverty is between 1 in 5 and 1 in 4. Now, none of these realities, which you are struck by when you drive out of London and make your way up through Nottingham and go to the north-east, and across to Merseyside, and so on – none of these realities are reflected in this campaign. These are domestic issues. And the whole issue of so-called ‘flexible working’, which is institutionalised insecurity, of people being counted as ’employed’, when they’ve got a job, a sort of two-day-a-week job. So the fact is – the unemployment figures are all cooked and doctored, and they don’t reflect the reality. Now, that domestic reality – putting aside the things that are happening in other countries – but that domestic reality which does affect people’s daily lives, has been left out.

DC: To what extent are you covering this in the film?

JP: Well, as much as we can. There’ll be a brief section near the end that’ll talk about the United Kingdom. But the film will go out on television in 52 minutes and to try and take on this subject in that time has been very, very difficult.

DC: I know you’ve concentrated on Indonesia as a great example, but did you interview any British ministers for this film?

JP: No, because first of all we’d have to go through the charade we had to go through in trying to interview Robin Cook which Panorama, on tonight, had to go through in trying to get Alan Milburn to be interviewed. Their trickery now is to demand a full, uncut interview – something like 12-15 minutes of screentime which, of course, gives them editorial control and a censorial hand on the work. I didn’t agree to give that to Cook and I wouldn’t agree to give it to anybody else. There’s no point really in going to them now – they’re all so – they don’t even appear on the Today programme.

DC: Astonishing arrogance.

JP: Yes.

DC: Going back to this issue of the media. I know that you’re absolutely au fait with Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model and Manufacturing Consent, which to some extent I am as well. But one of the responses that I get when I write about it is that this model is only applicable or largely applicable in the United States – not here in the UK, where we have stronger public broadcasting – and also it’s a ‘deterministic’ model, or leaning too far towards a conspiracy view, which I know that Herman and Chomsky absolutely refuted. So, there’s those two points: that it’s applicable in the US, but not here and that it’s a deterministic view.

JP: There’s a variation. There’s a version of it here. Of course there is. And I don’t think Chomsky ever said it’s conspiratorial.

DC: No, he denied that.

JP: The problem is that journalists are only now – very tentatively – beginning to analyse the way they work. A few years ago it was considered an intrusion for anybody to challenge the way journalism works. And there is still today an extreme defensiveness. There’s a defensiveness because there’s a great deal to criticise, and there’s a great deal to understand that isn’t understood about the workings of the media.

DC: It’s normally interpreted in terms of a few ‘bad apples’ – like your Murdochs and Maxwells..

JP: Well, it always is.

DC: .but it’s much more in-depth than that.

JP: The problem is, I’ve always felt, not so much in the tabloids or in the more obvious examples of all the popular media but it’s in the serious media. When you have PR Week, the public relations house magazine, suggesting that 50 per cent of broadsheet newspapers, including the sporting section, are influenced to some degree by public relations – that’s something that is extremely serious and is not debated at all, and ought to be. The influence of public relations now on journalism where stories – particularly financial stories – are pre-packaged and go into the newspapers with very little change, often because the journalist has many jobs to do under the new rules of multi-skilling.

But I would start with the BBC. The BBC is able to cover probably the most refined form of state censorship in the world because it has such high professional standards. It produces brilliant drama, technically it’s probably without equal in the world. Among its reporters, they’re professional. But its terms of reference are so narrow and so integrated into a consensus view, the prevailing wisdom or the establishment view – whatever you want to call it – that it is a form of propaganda. If you turn on the BBC television news, the way the news agendas are presented is something that is simply an extension, in my view, of an established, an almost accredited point of view. In other words, the famed objectivity and impartiality of the BBC.

DC: The Reithian ideals.

JP: . have as its main ingredient the accredited point of view.

DC: That’s right – you can see that clearly in the bombing of Iraq and Serbia and so on.

JP: Well, it’s always from the point of view of authority – and of Western authority. Countries, whole societies, whole issues are invariably seen in terms of their importance and usefulness to Western interests or Western power. Countries are reported in terms of their usefulness and importance to Western power. Why should East Timor be virtually ignored by the BBC for years? Indeed, ignored by most journalists. It was only in 1998 that journalists en masse descended upon East Timor and discovered it.

DC: What produced that reaction? Was that popular pressure in Australia and around the world? What was the motivation?

JP: I think it had a lot to do with that. I think the Western world was woken up by what was happening in East Timor by a tremendous outpouring of public opinion – of public outrage – in Australia. People in Australia were disgusted with the role of their government and the collaboration of successive Australian governments with the Suharto regime. The demonstrations in city after city around the country – it was one of those moments where public outrage influenced the government to act. That had a knock-on effect in other countries.

DC: Well, you’ve mentioned already that Brazil and Bolivia are also good examples. Have you got other examples in the film?

JP: The point is about these places – on the news – if you look at the way that globalisation, or the resistance, or the critique of globalisation is presented, it’s presented in terms of stereotypes: Robocop policemen chasing so-called ‘anarchists’ around McDonald’s. Time and again, that’s the way it’s presented. It’s only when the police become so extreme in their policing methods, as they did on Mayday in London, and detained 5000 people in Oxford Circus, was there then a suggestion – and it was merely a suggestion – in the reporting that this was outrageous. The fact that several million people in the last six months or so have come out and demonstrated all over the world against the imposition of various forms of the global economy on themselves has been ignored by the free press. Most people have had no idea of the extent of the opposition to globalisation and that’s going to be one of the ingredients in the film. We’re going to talk about the extent of the opposition to it and how it has been misrepresented, generally speaking.

DC: It’s been misrepresented quite often as ‘apathy’, hasn’t it? I’ve seen it during this election that people are supposedly apathetic, which is the big lie – they’re not at all apathetic.

JP: Well they’re not apathetic. What a lot of people are going to do on Thursday [8 June, 2001] is go on strike. The idea that millions of people will be ‘abstaining’ or ‘apathetic’ is nonsense. They’re angry and they’re making a statement by not voting. You can agree with that or not, but that’s what it is. It’s strike action.

DC: That’s right. If there was a box that said ‘none of the above’ it would quite possibly win the election. It certainly would have done in the United States where more than 50 per cent didn’t bother to vote for Bush or Gore, or Nader for that matter.

Well, let’s stop there. Thank you very much.