The Guardian • Issue #2083

John Pilger tribute

John Pilger.

John Pilger. Photo: SCU Media Students – flicker (CC BY 2.0)

One of the greatest journalists of our era has died. John Pilger, powerful critical journalist, prolific author, world-changing filmmaker, foreign and war correspondent died in London on 30 December 2023. He was 84 years old.

John Pilger was always on the side of the oppressed. He denounced imperialism and its wars, exploitation and oppression, as well as its lies and propaganda.

John said that the aim of journalism “should be to find out as many facts and as much of the truth as possible. There’s no mystery. Yes, we all bring a personal perspective to work; that’s our human right. Mine is to be skeptical of those who seek to control us, indeed of all authority that isn’t accountable, and not to accept ‘official truths,’ which are often lies. Journalism is or ought to be the agent of people, not power: the view from the ground.”

John was twice awarded Britain’s Journalist of the Year, and his work received numerous accolades around the world including the Sydney Peace Prize in 2009. The British Television Authority described him as “a threat to Western Civilization.”

John’s enormous output covered conflicts in Australia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Nicaragua, Iraq, Burma, China, Okinawa, the Chagos Islands, Timor Leste, Chile, South Africa, Mexico, Japan, Czechoslovakia, the UK, the US, and more.

His most impactful documentaries were Year Zero: The quiet death of Cambodia (1979), Death of a Nation: The Timor Conspiracy (1994), and The Coming War with China (2016). As the front man, Pilger was handsome and his camera voice was powerful, resonant and rich.

He wrote: “In my lifetime, the United States has overthrown or attempted to overthrow more than 50 governments, mostly democracies, It has interfered in democratic elections in 30 countries. It has dropped bombs on the people of 30 countries, most of them poor and defenceless. It has attempted to murder the leaders of 50 countries. It has fought to suppress liberation movements in 20 countries.”

He told a 2022 conference in Norway that “the United States dominates the Western world’s media. All but one of the top ten media companies are based in North America. The internet and social media – Google, Twitter, Facebook – are mostly American owned and controlled.”

He added that “on September 11, 2001, the United Nations reported that on that day 36,615 children had died from poverty. But that was not news.”

John championed Palestinians’ rights to self-determination. In 1977, he released a documentary entitled ‘Palestine is Still The Issue’. He released a new documentary in 2002 with the same name.

He warned in 2009 that “in no other democratic country is public discussion of the brutal occupation of Palestine as limited as in Australia.”

In his 2016 documentary, The Coming War Against China, Pilger described how the US stirs up conflicts in places such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the South China Seas while the western media blames China for everything.

“News about China in the West is almost entirely about the threat from Beijing. Airbrushed are the 400 American military bases that surround most of China, an armed necklace that reaches from Australia to the Pacific and south east Asia, Japan, and Korea. The Japanese island of Okinawa and the Korean island of Jeju are loaded guns aimed point blank at the industrial heart of China. A Pentagon official described this as a ‘noose,’ ” Pilger said in a 2022 speech in Norway.

“Epic achievements, such as the eradication of abject poverty in China, are barely known. How perverse and squalid this is.”

John was a powerful supporter and friend of Julian Assange for decades. He reminded the world how western leaders reacted when Assange revealed a series of important truths that punctured the official narrative. “Vice President Biden called him a ‘hi-tech terrorist.’ Hillary Clinton asked, ‘Can’t we just drone this guy?’ ”

Accepting the Sydney Peace Prize in 2009, John said: “I find it remarkable that I have lived my life without having been blown to bits in a nuclear holocaust ignited by Washington. What this tells me is that popular resistance across the rest of the world is potent and much feared by the bully …Or if not feared, it’s disorientating for the master. That’s why those of us who regard peace as a normal state of human affairs are in for a long haul, and faltering along the way is not an option, really.”

John was an Australian. In his talk in the Sydney Town Hall accepting the 2009 Sydney Peace Prize he said:

“I am a seventh generation Australian. My great-great grandfather landed not far from here, on November 8th, 1821. He wore leg irons, each weighing four pounds. His name was Francis McCarty. He was an Irishman, convicted of the crime of insurrection and ‘uttering unlawful oaths.’ In October of the same year, an 18-year-old girl called Mary Palmer stood in the dock at Middlesex Gaol and was sentenced to be transported to New South Wales for the term of her natural life. Her crime was stealing in order to live. Only the fact that she was pregnant saved her from the gallows. She was my great-great grandmother.”

John always had a strong commitment to Indigenous rights. His book The Secret Country was famous internationally for exposing the treatment of Aboriginal people. He turned the book into a film in 1985, and then completed several more documentaries on the First Australians.

In his Sydney Peace Prize lecture, Pilger said: “What terrifies the agents of power is the awakening of people: of public consciousness; the revelation of a seed beneath the snow,” and he quoted what he called one of the greatest poems of the English language by Percy Shelley:

Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number.
Shake your chains to earth like dew.
Which in sleep has fallen on you.
Ye are many – they are few.

Readers are encouraged to look at his documentaries and articles which are available on his website, johnpilger.com.

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