The Progressive INTERVIEW - Thursday, November 7, 2002



"The Bush Administration is out of control. It contains some truly
dangerous people," says the London-based journalist.

by David Barsamian

Corporate journalism in the United States preaches "objectivity" and
scorns those who take the side of the dispossessed and
disenfranchised. But the mainstream media in Britain makes a few
allowances. John Pilger, the Australian-born, London-based journalist
and filmmaker, is one.

"I grew up in Sydney in a very political household," Pilger told
me, "where we were all for the underdog." His father was a Wobbly, a
member of the Industrial Workers of the World. Like Orwell, whom he
admires, Pilger has a direct style. For example, he uses the
term "imperialism" and does not hesitate to attach it to the
adjective "American."

He was a featured speaker at the mass peace rally in London on
September 28. He told the crowd, estimated at between 150,000 and
350,000, "Today a taboo has been broken. We are the moderates. Bush
and Blair are the extremists. The danger for all of us is not in
Baghdad but in Washington." And he applauded the
protesters. "Democracy," he told them, "is not one obsessed man using
the power of kings to attack another country in our name. Democracy
is not siding with Ariel Sharon, a war criminal, in order to crush
Palestinians. Democracy is this great event today representing the
majority of the people of Great Britain.

"For his reporting, Pilger has twice won the highest award in British
journalism. His latest book is The New Rulers of the World (Verso,
2002). His political films include Paying the Price: Killing the
Children of Iraq, Death of a Nation: East Timor, The New Rulers of
the World, and Palestine Is Still the Issue. These documentaries are
shown all over Britain, Canada, Australia, and much of the rest of
the world but are rarely seen in the United States. PBS, the Public
Broadcasting Service, which has seemingly unlimited space to air
specials on animals, can't seem to find a spot for Pilger's work.

"The censorship is such on television in the U.S. that films like
mine don't stand a chance," he told me, and he illustrated this point
with the following anecdote. Some years ago, PBS expressed interest
in one of his films on Cambodia, but it was concerned about the
content. In something out of Orwell's Ministry of Truth, the network
appointed what it called a "journalistic adjudicator" to decide
whether the film was worthy of airing. The adjudicator adjudicated.
The film did not air. PBS also rejected another film on Cambodia that
he did. But WNET in New York picked it up--the only station in the
country to do so. On the basis of that one showing, Pilger was
awarded an Emmy.

I called him at his home in London the day before he spoke at the
huge peace rally.

Question: Is the war on terrorism a new version of the white man's

John Pilger: Classic nineteenth century European imperialists
believed they were literally on a mission. I don't believe that the
imperialists these days have that same sense of public service. They
are simply pirates. Yes, there are fundamentalists, Christian
fundamentalists, who appear to be in charge of the White House at the
moment, but they are very different from the Christian gentlemen who
ran the British Empire and believed they were doing good works around
the world. These days it's about naked power.

Q: Why do you say that?

Pilger: The attack on Iraq has been long planned. There just hasn't
been an excuse for it. Since George H.W. Bush didn't unseat Saddam in
1991, there's been a longing among the extreme right in the United
States to finish the job. The war on terrorism has given them that
opportunity. Even though the logic is convoluted and fraudulent, it
appears they are going to go ahead and finish the job.

Q: Why is Tony Blair such an enthusiastic supporter of U.S. policy?

Pilger: We have an extreme rightwing government in this country,
although it's called the Labour government. That's confused a lot of
people, but it's confusing them less and less. The British Labour
Party has always had a very strong "Atlanticist component," with an
obsequiousness to American policies, and Blair represents this wing.
He's clearly obsessed with Iraq. He has to be because the
overwhelming majority of the people of Britain oppose a military
action. I've never known a situation like it. To give you one
example, The Daily Mirror polled its readers and 90 percent were
opposed to an attack on Iraq. Overall, opinion polls in this country
are running at about 70 percent against the war. Blair is at odds
with the country.

Q: In your new book, you talk about the group around Bush that is
essentially forming war policy, people like Vice President Dick
Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary of
Defense Paul Wolfowitz. You single out Richard Perle, who was
Assistant Secretary of Defense in Reagan's Pentagon. You highlighted
his comment "This is total war."

Pilger: I interviewed Perle when he was buzzing around the Reagan
Administration in the 1980s, and I was struck by how truly fanatical
this man was. He was then voicing the views of total war. All of
Bush's extremism comes from the Reagan years. That's why people like
Perle, Wolfowitz, and other refugees from that period have found
favor again. I singled out Perle in the book because I thought he
rather eloquently described the policies of the Bush regime.
September 11 has given these people, this clique, an opportunity from
heaven. They never really believed they would have the legitimacy to
do what they are doing. They don't, of course, have legitimacy
because most of the world is opposed to what they are doing. But they
believe it has given them if not a legitimacy then a constituency in
the United States.

Q: They are also part of an Administration that came to power under
shady circumstances.

Pilger: I don't regard them as an elected group. It's quite clear
that Gore won most of the votes. I think the accurate description for
them is a military plutocracy. Having lived and worked in the United
States, I must add that I don't want to make too much of the
distinction between the Bush regime and its predecessors. I don't see
a great deal of difference. Clinton kept funding Star Wars. He took
the biggest military budget to Congress in history. He routinely
bombed Iraq, and he kept the barbaric sanctions in place. He's really
played his part. The Bush gang has taken it just a little further.

Q: At least on the level of rhetoric, it seems that the top officials
of the Bush Administration are much more bellicose. They've taken
their gloves off. They speak in extreme language: "You're either with
us or you're with the terrorists."

Pilger: We're grateful to them because they've made it very clear to
other people just how dangerous they are. Before, Clinton persuaded
some people that he was really a civilized character and his
Administration had the best interests of humanity at heart. These
days we don't have to put up with that nonsense. It's very clear that
the Bush Administration is out of control. It contains some truly
dangerous people.

Q: How do you assess U.S. policy toward Israel?

Pilger: Israel is the American watchdog in the Middle East, and
that's why the Palestinians remain victims of one of the longest
military occupations. They don't have oil. If they were the Saudis,
they wouldn't be in the position they are now. But they have the
power of being able to upset the imperial order in the Middle East.
Certainly, until there is justice for the Palestinians, there will
never be any kind of stability in the Middle East. I'm absolutely
convinced of that. Israel is the representative of the United States
in that part of the world. Its policies are so integrated with
American policies that they use the same language. If you read
Sharon's statements and Bush's statements, they're virtually

Q: You write for the Mirror, the British tabloid with a circulation
of two million plus. How did you get that job?

Pilger: I wrote for the Mirror for twenty years. I joined it back in
the 1960s when I arrived from Australia. You don't really have
anything like the Mirror--as it was, and as it is trying to be again--
in the United States. The Mirror is a left-leaning tabloid. It's
really a traditional supporter of the Labour Party in this country. I
suppose its politics are center-left. During the time I was there, it
was very adventurous politically. It reported many parts of the world
from the point of view of victims of wars. I reported Vietnam for
many years for the Mirror. In those days, it played a central role in
the political life of this country. It then fell into a long, rather
terrible period, trying to copy its Murdoch rival, The Sun, and just
became a trashy tabloid.

Since September 11, the Mirror has reached back to its roots, and
decided, it seems, to be something of its old self again. I received
a call asking if I would write for it again, which I've done. It's a
pleasure to be able to do that. It's become an important antidote to
a media that is, most of it, supportive of the establishment, some of
it quite rabidly rightwing. The Mirror is breaking ranks, and that's
good news.

Q: In one of your articles, you called the United States "the world's
leading rogue state." This incurred the wrath of The Washington
Times, which is owned by the Moonies. They called your paper "a
shrill tabloid read by soccer hooligans." Your fellow Australian
Rupert Murdoch, owner of The New York Post, called the Mirror
a "terrorist-loving London tabloid."

Pilger: There's one correction I want to make there. Murdoch is not a
fellow Australian. He's an American.

Q: But he was born in Australia.

Pilger: No, he's an American. He gave up his Australian citizenship
in order to buy television stations in the United States, which is
symptomatic of the way Murdoch operates. Everything is for sale,
including his birthright. The Mirror is not read by soccer hooligans.
It's read by ordinary people of this country. That comment is simply
patronizing. But to be criticized by the Moonies and Murdoch in one
breath is really just a fine moment for me.

Q: In George Orwell's essay "Politics and the English Language," he
describes the centrality of language in framing and informing debate.
He was particularly critical of the use of euphemisms and the passive
voice, so today we have "collateral damage," "free trade," and "level
playing fields," and such constructions as "villages were bombed,"
and "Afghan civilians were killed." You compare the rhetoric
surrounding the war on terrorism to the kind of language Orwell

Pilger: Orwell is almost our litmus test. Some of his satirical
writing looks like reality these days. When you have someone like
Cheney who talks about "endless war" or war that might last fifty
years, he could be Big Brother. You have Bush incessantly going on
about the evil ones. Who are these evil ones? In 1984, the evil one
was called Goldstein. Orwell was writing a grim parody. But these
people running the United States mean what they say. If I were a
teacher, I would recommend that all my students very hurriedly read
most of Orwell's books, especially 1984 and Animal Farm, because then
they'd begin to understand the world we live in.

Q: And the use of passive voice?

Pilger: Using the passive voice is always very helpful. Mind you, a
lot of that propaganda English emanates from here. The British
establishment has always used the passive voice. It's been a weapon
of discourse so those who committed terrible acts in the old empire
could not be identified. Or, today, the British establishment
uses "the royal we," as in, "We think this." You hear a lot of that
these days. It erroneously suggests that those who are making the
decisions to bomb countries, to devastate economies, to take part in
acts of international piracy involve all of us.

Q: What's wrong with journalism today?

Pilger: Many journalists now are no more than channelers and echoers
of what Orwell called the official truth. They simply cipher and
transmit lies. It really grieves me that so many of my fellow
journalists can be so manipulated that they become really what the
French describe as functionaires, functionaries, not journalists.

Many journalists become very defensive when you suggest to them that
they are anything but impartial and objective. The problem with those
words "impartiality" and "objectivity" is that they have lost their
dictionary meaning. They've been taken over. "Impartiality"
and "objectivity" now mean the establishment point of view. Whenever
a journalist says to me, "Oh, you don't understand, I'm impartial,
I'm objective," I know what he's saying. I can decode it immediately.
It means he channels the official truth. Almost always. That
protestation means he speaks for a consensual view of the
establishment. This is internalized. Journalists don't sit down and
think, "I'm now going to speak for the establishment." Of course not.
But they internalize a whole set of assumptions, and one of the most
potent assumptions is that the world should be seen in terms of its
usefulness to the West, not humanity. This leads journalists to make
a distinction between people who matter and people who don't matter.
The people who died in the Twin Towers in that terrible crime
mattered. The people who were bombed to death in dusty villages in
Afghanistan didn't matter, even though it now seems that their
numbers were greater. The people who will die in Iraq don't matter.
Iraq has been successfully demonized as if everybody who lives there
is Saddam Hussein. In the build-up to this attack on Iraq,
journalists have almost universally excluded the prospect of civilian
deaths, the numbers of people who would die, because those people
don't matter.

It's only when journalists understand the role they play in this
propaganda, it's only when they realize they can't be both
independent, honest journalists and agents of power, that things will
begin to change.

[David Barsamian, Director of Alternative Radio in Boulder, Colorado,
is the author of "The Decline and Fall of Public Broadcasting" (South
End Press).[Website of John Pilger: ]
[Copyright © 2002]


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The Progressive Interview of JOHN PILGER
"The Bush Administration is out of control. It contains some truly
dangerous people," says the London-based journalist.

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A huge majority of Americans identify health care as one of their top
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say, enhance the image of the United States in the Muslim world, an
image already badly, badly smeared by Ariel Sharon's offensive
against the Palestinians and the 11-year embargo the U.S. insists
that the U.N. impose on Iraq, an embargo that has killed hundreds of
thousands of Iraqi kids.
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targeted assassinations, despite its apparent use of the same tactic
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U.S. FBI, British Scotland Yard, Police in all countries of the
world, or the United Nations Police must arrest Ariel Sharon -- the
Israeli Crime Minister, Repressive Tyrant, War Criminal, Serial
Killer, International Terrorist, Mossad Mafia Don, Human Rights
Abuser and Evil Beast -- and all officials of his terrorist tyranny
and prosecute them in the International Criminal Court or other
courts of law for their barbarous crimes against humanity.