“Official Truths are often powerful illusions.” – John Pilger
For most of his life, John Pilger spoke out against power and championed those who are lost in the shadows of history. The Australian born journalist, though truly a citizen of the world passed away in December at the age of 84. It was a tragic loss. Pilger worked for some of the more famed media outlets, from Reuters, the Daily Mirror, though he was always his own unique voice when reporting and witnessing events. It was during the Vietnam War that his dissident words ascended among his peers, with his own film making style and integrity that put shame on the powerful while humanising their victims. Victims that are often relegated to the dust and paste of history, at best statistics in the ledger of others greatness. John Pilger always saw them as people, human beings that mattered.
Writing numerous books and making several documentaries, he would often attack Western foreign policy, criticising the wars and the exploitation occurring in the developed and developing world. It was with his compassion and focus on the conquered peoples, such as Indigenous Australians that Pilger was especially adept. For his life, he was tireless and relentless in his expression against war crimes, imperialism and corruption. Despite every word on such heavy subjects that he wrote, every injustice he witnessed and the overbearing nature of it all, he never deteriorated into cynicism or lost sight. With his words he unveiled a compassion and a dignity for many of those, who despite their hardship retained the human spirit.
At times he could sound calm and soothing in his narration or while giving an interview, though he would not shy from argument when required. Take for example his 2003 interview with Kim Hill. Pilger’s anti-war position was challenged by the pro-agenda Hill, the agenda being that the then coming war with Iraq was a needed inevitability and a good thing. The establishment and its many cheerleaders in the media lusted for the destruction of Iraq and perhaps even the Middle East. In the interview Pilger pushed back on the claims that the invasion would be another, ‘Just War’. They are always “just wars”, until the generation that fought it grow weary and suddenly it becomes a regretful mistake.
Remaining consistent, and of the left in the traditional sense even while others meandered. For John Pilger his loyalty remained to his principles and that of justice, for those who were often without voice, ignored and crushed beneath power. The people of the Chagosian archipelago for example, having their home islands stripped away and forced to be refugees because the British empire in its twilight decided to ‘nationalise’ and possess that which did not belong to them. Illegal even under the laws of the Crown, yet with mostly silence the people of the Chagos islands were dispossessed so that Britain and now the United States may have another military base. A platform used for the many wars of the late twentieth and into the twenty-first century. The neo-colonialism of the empires that have adjusted their imperialism, adopted the language of international order, few saw it for what it was, Pilger was one of them.
“History is hosed down with official denials. Of course they are worthless unless they are subjected to scrutiny. Journalism is not about accepting the glib assurances of politicians and intelligence bosses.” John Pilger said in his book, “A Secret Nation”, on the coup of Gough Whitlam, when the sitting Australian prime minister was over thrown by the governor general and replaced by the opposition leader. It was a coup that had US and British government finger prints over it, an event in Australian history that went with controversy though mostly acceptance. The Constitutional Crisis is what it was known as locally, though a coup it certainly was. Journalists like Pilger continued to report and unveil the nefarious nature of the coup, even as the public went back to their beers or forgot when a Prime Minister was overthrown.
Pilger understood the nature of power and government. That big business and individuals often would turn the other way or knowingly work with warlords and governments actively committing human rights violations or even war crimes. Money was to be made. A man of the left, Pilger was often complicated and nuanced in his revelations of corruption and the abuse of power, he did not omit or admit facts out of ideological bias. A communist, fascist or liberal democratic regime was fair game for his condemnation so long as they abused power and hurt the innocent. That is the anarchist indictment on government that at times hides among the pages of Pilger’s writing. Though always looking for the angels to fix the process, to obey the laws and to correct the injustice, there is among the many examples of terrible power an understanding that absolute authority or the monopoly itself is the problem.
Often a champion for labour rights, the worker and a “fair go”, Pilger has the instincts of a good “lefty,” especially one from his era when the union was supposed to represent the worker and their families. It is that “free” healthcare, education and services are to be base requirements for a society that protects the most vulnerable to “uplift” them so that they may transcend poverty. As Pilger puts it in, “Distant Voices”, “Poverty kills.” Not above criticising sacred institutions such as the British National Health Service, he would reveal the dangerous neglect and inefficiencies, though with the angle of reforming what could be a beautiful thing. Rather than a monopoly is each and every time flawed and corrupt. His words at times dangle close to the “if only” embrace of such a powerful entity if the corruption and perverse incentives did not exist. Ever tireless and empathetic to those who suffer, who are at risk and who are lost beneath the weight of such powerful creatures, Pilger’s key strokes are his sword and his wit the shield for those who have few champions.
Even up until his last breath, Pilger was questioning the propaganda menace in the war between Russia and Ukraine, challenging the ‘accepted’ narrative that Moscow is by default evil. His documentary, “The coming war with China’, warns of the new cold war and the simmering risk of an all out conflict between the West and East. The ever present humanitarian tragedy in Gaza was always a concern for him, especially in the weeks before his passing. Always a supporter of free speech and government transparency, he had been an advocate for the release of Julian Assange. Embracing Wikileaks and his fellow Aussie from the moment both became a household name. With a passionate mind for justice, he also held a historians memory, understanding that the past is a precious clue as to why we are here and where things may lead. Such knowledge and wisdom are often reflected in his writings and when he spoke, those of us who heard and read him are better for it.
John Pilger once recalled, “I grew up in Sydney in a very political household, where we were all for the underdog.” Though he did move from Sydney, that upbringing of discourse and a sense of right and wrong never seemed to have left him. Every step of the way, he was defined by a career that advocated for the underdog but a career that never separated the man who remained true to his principles and sense of justice. In December the world lost a champion, though thankfully John Pilger never was silent, he left a body of work that will echo deep into the future. With tenacity and dignity he has gone on to inspire others to speak and write with a courage that he forged in an age where cowardice is profitable and the mercenaries obedience to power so common. John Pilger and those he inspired are the heroes against power. Though he never fired a bullet in anger, his typewriter and keyboard kept punching on. Rest now Mr Pilger, the world thanks you.