John Pilger – ‘A Majority Of One’

Last week, the Observer reported that the slogan ‘united we will win’ is a fixture on Israeli screens ‘for most TV news and talk shows’. Raviv Drucker, one of Israel’s leading investigative journalists, commented:

‘In general, the Israeli media is drafted to the main goal of winning the war, or what looks like trying to win the war…

‘The shock [of 7 October] was so brutal, and the trauma is so hard that journalists see their role now, or part of their role, to help the state to win the war. And part of it is showing as little as possible from the suffering in Gaza, and minimising criticism about the army.’

This is better termed anti-journalism, a propaganda system censoring even the most crucial facts.

Thus, Anat Saragusti, press freedom director for Israel’s Union of Journalists and one of the few Israeli journalists to have reported from Gaza independently of the military during previous conflicts, commented:

‘They cover the Palestinians only in the framework of security. You hardly see any women, no kids. The spirit is that they are all Hamas. I know it’s not easy, but I think the media are not doing their job.’

The Israeli public, then, is not seeing the footage of tiny, shivering infants with grotesque head wounds, of injured mothers cradling their dead babies – scenes that have been traumatising the rest of us on social media for three months.

In a moment of stunning self-unawareness, the Observer added:

‘US president Joe Biden warned Israelis soon after 7 October against repeating America’s mistakes in its wars of vengeance in Iraq and Afghanistan. He could also have warned about the failings of journalists who smoothed the path to those conflicts.’

One of the ‘failings of journalists who smoothed the path’ in the Observer, the Guardian, and everywhere else, was to portray the 2003 war of opportunity for oil in Iraq as an irrational ‘war of vengeance’ or a paranoid ‘war of national security’.

To this day, British and US anti-journalism cannot discuss the brute fact that US-UK armies blasted the way open for US-UK oil companies like BP and Exxon to do big business in Iraq at the cost of more than one million Iraqi lives. Why? Because, as in Israel, ‘journalists see their role now… to help the state to win the war’.

The global dominance of this anti-journalism is the correct context in which to evaluate the rare, authentic journalism of John Pilger, who died on 30 December, and the response of the corporate critics smearing him.

‘Reclaiming The Honour Of Our Craft’

In exact opposition to the way Israeli ‘journalists’ are now burying the truth of their government’s genocide in Gaza, Pilger wrote in 2006:

‘In reclaiming the honour of our craft, not to mention the truth, we journalists at least need to understand the historic task to which we are assigned – that is, to report the rest of humanity in terms of its usefulness, or otherwise, to “us”, and to soften up the public for rapacious attacks on countries that are no threat to us.’

Is it difficult to understand that war-winning propagandists deem the trashing of real journalists like Pilger a key part of their role? This week, Declassified UK reported:

‘Recently declassified files show how the UK government covertly monitored Australian journalist John Pilger, and sought to discredit him by encouraging media contacts to attack him in the press.’

Consider that, in 2005, Pilger said of Blair and Iraq:

‘By voting for Blair, you will walk over the corpses of at least 100,000 [ultimately, in excess of one million] people, most of them innocent women and children and the elderly, slaughtered by rapacious forces sent by Blair and Bush, unprovoked and in defiance of international law, to a defenceless country.’ (Pilger, ‘By voting for Blair, you will walk over the corpses of at least 100,000 people,’ New Statesman, 25 April 2005)

Naturally, anti-journalism reflexively brands this ‘an extreme left-wing and anti-American bias’ that ‘consistently underscored much of’ Pilger’s reporting, as The Times opined in its obituary.

In fact, there is nothing ‘extreme’, ‘anti-American’ or even ‘left-wing’ about opposing the mass killing of civilians for profit.

The Times noted the Orwellian effort to transform Pilger’s name into a verb:

‘… to Pilger, Pilgerise, or be Pilgered. It was defined as: “To present information in a sensationalist manner to reach a foregone conclusion; using emotive language to make a false political point; treating a subject emotionally with generous disregard for inconvenient detail; or making a pompous judgment on wrong premises.”’

A clearer case of psychological projection can hardly be imagined from a newspaper that has done all this and more in promoting the West’s wars of aggression. Even if everything The Times said was true, the fact that Pilger was right in opposing numerous war crimes and The Times was not just wrong but complicit in supporting them, renders their criticism absurd.

The Times continued that Pilger’s ‘polemical approach’ involved ‘looking at all international conflicts through an anti-American prism’ leaving him ‘a dupe of the eastern bloc and, later, the Putin regime’.

No prejudicial prism is required to perceive the unmissable carnage generated by the American empire in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Gaza and Ukraine. Pilger was no more a dupe of Putin than he was ‘anti-American’. He wrote in 2022:

‘Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is wanton and inexcusable. It is a crime to invade a sovereign country. There are no “buts” – except one.

‘When did the present war in Ukraine begin and who started it? According to the United Nations, between 2014 and this year, some 14,000 people have been killed in the Kiev regime’s civil war on the Donbass. Many of the attacks were carried out by neo-Nazis.’

Of course, the ‘but’ was a betrayal for anti-journalism, but this was a rational question raised by a wide range of credible sources like Jeffrey Sachs, John Mearsheimer, Alastair Crooke and many others.

‘A Target No-One Else Can See’

Oliver Kamm, formerly a leader writer for The Times, went further in a CapX blog republished in the Telegraph: ‘Pilger was not really an investigative journalist at all’, he ‘fabricated his conclusions in order to accord with his premises’. He ‘operated with a combination of evasion, misdirection and fakery for decades’. Kamm lamented ‘the weakness of his technical grasp of almost any given subject’.

Back in the real world, Bill Haggerty, former Assistant Editor at the Mirror, wrote:

‘Was a time when young students planning a career in print journalism wanted to be John Pilger – even the girls….

‘I have never worked with anyone who came even close to matching the fire, outrage and descriptive power employed by Pilger when reporting from Vietnam, Cambodia and other hotspots for The Daily Mirror.’ (Bill Haggerty, ‘Hanging out with celebs has surpassed unearthing news,’ 15 November 2004, The Independent)

This needs emphasising – no-one else even came close. Schopenhauer observed:

‘Talent hits a target no-one else can hit; Genius hits a target no-one else can see.’

For thirty years, we have tried to see the target Pilger so consistently hit. How did his writing stand completely apart in delivering such inspirational, oxygenating impact? Part of the answer is that Pilger’s work transcended the dry intellectuality of more academic dissidents. He wrote with their precision and insight, but with an added dimension of passion, emotion and personal warmth. His writing is ablaze with an outrage rooted, not in some mindless ‘anti-American’ hatred, but in its exact opposite: a deeply felt love for ordinary people treated as trash by the powerful. Pilger really did care, injustice tortured him, and it is this compassion that is communicated to readers and viewers in every article, book, film and in the many emails he sent us over two decades. Remarkably, reading and watching Pilger enhances our sense of our own dignity because he reminds us of how much we can care, of how much we do care. The last message he sent us on 15 November, six weeks before he died, referred to a recent media alert:

‘Dear David

‘So good to hear from you, as ever (and thanks for the BBC piece which I hadn’t seen); I’m at my most restorative when my optimism reminds me how blessed I am; the truth is I am on a “journey”, as almost everyone says now, and it sometimes feels like I am still waiting for the bus. I am making progress on paper, and I can walk unaided with a protective guard at my elbow. But it’s calling on a determination I know I have, but prefer to send on a lifelong sabbatical.

‘Terrific piece, mate. What creatures Welby and the rest are…

‘all my best

‘John’ (Email to David Edwards, 15 November 2023)

Pilger sent us this kind of positivity, often unbidden, time and again, year after year. In the world of left activism – which is rather more competitive and ego-ridden than we might like to imagine – no-one else has done anything remotely comparable. That Pilger sent us one last message of encouragement at a time when he was gravely ill gives an idea of his inexhaustible generosity of spirit. Note, also, the sense of fun and even joie de vivre even in this last message sent at such a difficult time. Pilger’s love of writing, of word play, of supporting other people, came out of a deep love of life.

Kamm’s claim that Pilger was ‘famously humourless’ is magnificently off. The extra ingredient we haven’t mentioned – the spice that helped him hit the target no one else can see – was a wonderfully understated, sardonic humour aimed at the many ‘windbags’ he so loved to deflate. He emailed us about the BBC’s famous and compromised Middle East correspondent Jeremy Bowen:

‘A few years ago, [Bowen] invited me to take part in a BBC special about war correspondents, and we spent an enjoyable hour or so “in conversation”. Although it was clear that tales of derring-do would have been preferred, I raised the unwelcome subject that the BBC was an extension and voice of the established order in Britain and its reporting on the Middle East and elsewhere reflected the prevailing wisdom — with honourable exceptions from time to time. My contribution was cut entirely from the programme. I emailed Bowen and sometime later received an unsatisfactory response that there wasn’t “time or space” in the film — something unsurprising like that. Censorship by omission is standard, if undeclared practice.’ (Email to David Edwards, 18 April 2008)

Kamm again lamented: ‘while he talked a lot about the power of language, he didn’t know much about it’.

Again, this couldn’t be more wrong. Pilger had an uncanny ability to capture the truth of an individual, idea, or issue with spectacular concision. In this single, witty sentence he caught and burst the much-lauded myth of BBC ‘objectivity’:

‘I’ve always found it amusing, bemusing, that so many people in the BBC see themselves as having entered into a Nirvana of objectivity, as if their objectivity and impartiality have been given to them intravenously.’

In October 2003, in 64 words, Pilger demolished the idolatry of Clinton and Blair, the mythmaking of the US-UK ‘special relationship’, the West’s ethical pretensions, the credibility of the Independent and indeed of the entire Westminster press pack:

‘“The New Special Relationship” was the next good news, with Blair and Clinton looking into each other’s eyes in the garden at No 10 Downing Street. Here was the torch being passed, said the front page of the Independent, “from a becalmed and aimless American presidency to the coltish omnipotence of Blairdom”. This was the reverential tone that launched Blair into his imperial violence.’ (Pilger, ‘The Fall and Rise of Liberal England,’ New Statesman, 13 October 2003)

The focus on Clinton and Blair ‘looking into each other’s eyes in the garden at No 10 Downing Street’ pricked perfectly the Disneyfied charade by which so many are gulled. The contrast between the fawning idolatry of the Independent’s front page and Pilger’s final, pitch-black sentence was devastating. Just these three sentences left the legions of ‘journalists of attachment’, the ‘client journalists’, the ‘presstitutes’, looking exactly what they are – pitiful and foolish. And he did this endlessly. No wonder a journalist friend working in a major British TV news studio told us:

‘You must see the reaction in a newsroom when one mentions Chomsky or Pilger. They run the other way, and I can see they are afraid by the look on their faces. Fact is that once you understand and admit what you are doing, you can’t continue with it. When I mentioned Chomsky, one person commented, “Oh, he’s way out there.” “Way out where?” I asked.’ (Email to Media Lens, 8 July 2005)

Thoreau observed:

‘Any man more right than his neighbours constitutes a majority of one already.’ (Henry David Thoreau, Walden and Civil Disobedience, Penguin Classics, 1986, p.397)

On all the key issues, Pilger was more right than his neighbours; he was a towering, landslide ‘majority of one’.

Kamm left his worst till last in speculating on Kosovo ‘that Pilger himself invented the tale of extensive Nato losses which were being suppressed by the state and the news media, because he wished to stimulate popular opposition to government policy. He was spectacularly lying for the cause, which in this case was to assist a genocidal regime in its campaign of brutal repression’.

Even from Kamm’s perspective this was ill-advised. How can the author of an article devoted to trashing a journalist’s character finally expose himself as someone willing to stoop so low as to accuse someone who has just died, who cannot defend himself, of ‘spectacularly lying’? Any decent person, even Pilger’s enemies, must shrink in revulsion.

It is not our intention to suggest that these smears merit serious consideration. But they do provide a reminder of just how blatantly corporate critics are willing to reverse the truth. As Pilger himself said:

‘A common recipe for smear is half or quarter truth, conflation, misrepresentation, a pinch of sneer and a dollop of guilt-by-association. Stir briskly.’ (Email to David Edwards, 29 June 2011)

Pilger was able to make light of the many baseless smears but they sometimes wounded him deeply. The Scottish philosopher, David Hume, described Rousseau as ‘one of the most singular of all human beings… his extreme sensibility of temper is his torment’; ‘he is like a man who were stripped not only of his clothes but of his skin’. (Quoted, John Hope Mason, The Indispensable Rousseau, Quartet Books, 1979, p.5)

Pilger was similarly sensitive to injustices perpetrated against others and against himself; hence his reputation for being ‘prickly’. If he was sometimes prickly, it was because he was sincere, human; because he felt things deeply, painfully. His great triumph was to use this sensitivity, this pain, in the cause of truth in defence of the powerless.

Over the years, through many tests and travails, highs and lows, we developed a habit of ending our emails to each other with the same words. One last time, then, we say with all love and gratitude: Onwards, John!

We’d like to express our sincere condolences to John Pilger’s partner, Jane Hill, and to their family. We wish them all the very best.