Cross the threshold of John Pilger’s south London home and the deep pile carpet gently gives way beneath the feet. Soothing strains of classical guitar waft through the air and, over mugs of tea, the great polemicist examines the impact of his career, his sentences punctuated by the mewling of a ginger cat.
This scene of domestic calm is not one Pilger’s many political opponents, or the millions who follow his work, would associate with the cage-rattling campaigner who has set himself against authority figures from Washington DC to the killing fields of Cambodia.
It is half a century since Pilger started out as a copy boy on the Sydney Sun and he turned 69 last Thursday. But he remains agitated by injustices which he sees at every turn in Britain and abroad. Forty years after he began working for Granada’s World in Action, he has been commissioned to make a new film examining the media’s portrayal of Britain at war. And in the
That documentary, stemming from articles Pilger had produced for Hugh Cudlipp’s Daily Mirror,was denounced by the American government, which complained to the broadcasting authorities. “I had no experience of anything like this, everything seemed to fall down around my shoulders and it was disturbing. But the story that film told became the received wisdom all over the world within a year.” To some in the modern media, Pilger is a figure from a bygone age, his nameeliciting the sort of sighs of exasperation that until recently accompanied the notion of nationalisation. But he is convinced that there remains an appetite for left-wing journalism. “The influence of The Independent and The Guardian are much greater than you would think. I don’t believe the majority of people in Britain have the so-called values of The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail and certainly not The Sun.”
In the morning, he logs on to the Information Clearing House, a US-based website that provides a digest of left-of-centre journalism, highlighting the work of Noam Chomsky, Robert Fisk and Pilger himself. Such sites ensure a large readership. “The internet has changed so much. In America alone, my New Statesman column reaches millions on the web.”
He returned briefly to the Mirror after the September 11 terrorist attacks, when Piers Morgan (who he appears to respect) was editing the paper. “It was a very rewarding 18 months,” he says. “I was happy to keep on writing for the Mirror, but Piers was under pressure from the management and American shareholders who objected to the kind of journalism that he was publishing, often written by me. It was a myth that the readers didn’t want a serious approach to journalism in a popular newspaper.”
When he speaks to journalism students, he is convinced “many start with the same passion I started with” and implores them to “keep your principles as you navigate the system”. His watchword remains, ‘Never believe anything until it’s officially denied,’ a favourite expression of reporter Claud Cockburn, father of Independent journalist Patrick Cockburn.
Pilger hopes that his last documentary, The War on Democracy, and his forthcoming one, will encourage colleagues to take a more critical view. “If journalists can look behind the press-release version of events, or push back the screen of what is often propaganda but rarely recognised as such,” he says, “then we will produce true journalism, not a form of PR. We ought to be the agents of people, not power.”
The DVDs ‘Heroes: The Films of John Pilger 1970-2007’ and ‘Behind the Façade’ are released on 27 October, available from www.networkdvd.co.uk