John Pilger addressed a sold-out crowd of over 400 people in Sydney at a special screening of his new documentary, The War You Don’t See. Following the screening Pilger answered questions on the Australian and international media, relationships between corporations or governments and our media, embedded journalism, Israel-Palestine media coverage (including the current campaign against Marrickville BDS supporters), WikiLeaks and much more.
Below is a rush transcript of the Q&A session with Pilger, please excuse any errors that might exist. There are a few indecipherable moments, as indicated, and questions have been paraphrased (or key concepts indicated) as it was difficult to properly hear the audience members putting questions.
Pre-film Introduction from John Pilger
Thank you all for coming out in such generous numbers tonight. I would like to follow Paul and thank him and his comrades at Green Left who have done such incredible work in arranging events like this, and just doing the work they do, be it here tonight, at Marrickville council tonight. So all thanks to them.
My thanks also to SBS. I haven’t been on television in Australia for some years. SBS did an excellent job of putting this film to air, and promoting it. So my thanks go to them. It will be shown again on SBS, I don’t know when. The DVD will be available from I believe May 1st.
What I’d like to do is make this mostly a forum about the issues raised in the film. So when I come back after the film has been shown, I’ll say a few words, perhaps bring it up to date a little, but I want to give it over to you to ask me questions, and raise questions about the issues in the film, and I’d like to ask you to keep it to the issues in the film. That’s pretty wide. We are talking about media. This is why we are here tonight. We are talking about media and the way it represents and misrepresents. The way it presents and omits. This film was made about the main broadcast networks in the UK and in the US. It was originally made, like all my films, for the UK network ITV and shown in the UK in December.
But all the issues raised in this film apply here plus, there is a problem, a major problem in communications in Australia. It is the problem, the control of the media, the fact that we have such a dominant force, for example, by the Murdoch organisation in the press itself, and a like-minded dominance in much, if not most, of the rest of the media. These are issues that I think this film will translate, I hope, so although you’re seeing something that was made for, made about, UK and US, these massive corporations, particularly in the US, all apply here, and those are the issues I’d like to discuss when the film ends. I won’t talk anymore, let’s watch it and I look forward to discussing it with you.
Post-film Q&A session
QUESTION 01: How did you get the journalists in the film to talk?
[Missed start of answer]
JOHN PILGER: And two, we think of supply and demand, why do we allow them to sort of get away with this, they are supplying us. I mean first, the thing is the journalist who spoke in that, and the first journalist, whose opening credit you didn’t see, was Rageh Omaar, BBC correspondent in Iraq, he has since left the BBC. I have known him for quite a long time. Like a lot of serious-minded journalists, he was always troubled by this, troubled by the pressures on him in both crude and indirect, subtle, often, and he was more than willing to speak up about it. David Rose of The Observer – The Observer a famous liberal newspaper in Britain – played a major role with The New York Times, which refused to speak to me, by the way. But he did. In spreading the lies of weapons of mass destruction, he was conned, as he says in the film, as so many other senior journalists were. Look, I think it is a straight matter of conscious. They were troubled about it and they were more than happy to speak about it. Those were very long interviews, it’s only bits [...] it was very difficult to cut down, which we had to. I think one of the positive things that happened, there are many serious journalists that are wanting to speak out – that defensiveness that you often find in the media is starting to drop.
Why do we put up with it? Well that’s a question for you to answer, yourselves, isn’t it? The media should be an issue, that’s why it is an issue in this film and it shouldn’t be an abstract issue. There should be people in the doors of News Corporation, or Fairfax, or the ABC, or wherever, you’d be surprised at their surprise that this happened. That they suddenly become the object of complaint and protest. Now that’s one form.
My own idea, I suppose, is that we have to move on and form a public “fifth estate” in which, journalists, people in media colleges, media instructors, those who teach young journalists, and the public have to monitor and learn from what actually happens in the media. The idea of media colleges turning out young journalists to be simply fodder for Murdoch is absurd. Now I know there are real problems there because people need jobs. And in a small, smallish pond, like Australia, media pond, but with the same big sharks floating around in it, it is difficult. But that has to be debated. It has to be discussed. I did write, I have to say, to the major, I thought the major heads of media college departments, asking would they like to take part tonight – I got one reply. And there is a problem, because they are media colleges with real exceptions, honourable exceptions, have become factories, for the kinds of journalism that we don’t deserve any more.
QUESTION 02: Please don’t take this the wrong way because I’m a fan of yours. You talk about right-wing media as stenographers; would you say those in the left-wing media are stenographers also?
PILGER: This is a discussion that we have after we’ve introduced some left-wing into the media. Where is it? I am always troubled why suddenly we are into discussions about left and right, and the “left”, suddenly we are all dropped in the left, which at any given point might include Mr Rudd or Mr Brown. Look, it’s not about left and right, let’s have the left – if we didn’t have Green Left Weekly and if we didn’t have one or two other publications, there simply would be none in Australia, when you have the capital city press, 70% of them owned by Murdoch, most of the rest own owned by Fairfax. Where is this left?
We are talking about people who always – journalists, teachers, it doesn’t matter – who will always have a subjective view, but they can at the same time be truth seekers. They can do their best to find out what is going on, and the best journalism does that. It doesn’t necessarily give up its subjectivity, but it does give up any notion of distortion, or omission, or all those things that blight journalism – so it applies to all. But at the moment, because the media is a great corporate enterprise, that is known, I think fairly as a right, and they run the show. I think what most reasonable people say, well you can run certain newspapers, but we’d like to run some newspapers, and we’d like to have some television, or we’d like to be able to challenge it, to challenge you. And I try in all of my films to bring on the voices of the establishment, and to challenge, because I think there is more to be learned from the likes of the head of BBC news, Fran Unsworth [...] and the journalists you heard, out of their mouths, than out of mine. That challenge, which is a normal journalistic practice, is missing, often entirely.
QUESTION 03: Do you know why the Americans and Britain did what they did?
PILGER: Well. I think that was answered by one of the people in the film, and that was a very good witness Professor Stewart Ewen in the United States who described, for instance, the invasion of Iraq, I think rather succinctly, and he said it was about first of all oil, but not all about oil, it was about ownership of a part of the world, about taking a very important part of the world that was once described by an American president as the stupendous prize of the world.
Just touching on what you were bringing up about Libya, and it certainly is true of Iraq or [any of them], as someone once said rather dryly, if these countries were known for growing carrots we’d have no interest in them.
The short answer to your question is that rich countries have been made rich by many things, but it is one of the major elements, has been acquiring resources, like oil and minerals and a lot of the riches of the earth, that they don’t have. That has come out of, not all that long ago, empires, that now exist in a different form. I think that’s probably about the the most succinct way I can answer, very good question, thank you.
QUESTION 04: Why would Rupert Murdoch have had lunch with Julia Gillard in New York recently?
PILGER: Well that’s a standard lunch. That’s a lunch that she had to have. Rudd, before he was elected, I remember, there was a picture of him emerging from News Corps headquarters in Manhattan, he had lunch. It’s very similar to the – you have a set of picture – I remember in a previous film I used a lot of the pictures of all those Western politicians who used to go and have lunch with Saddam Hussein and sit on his couch and have their picture take and unfortunately for them they all had to appear on the front of the Baghdad newspaper with Saddam Hussein [...] but Murdoch [...] requires all those who want his so-called support to go and literally have lunch with him and more. You find all the British prime ministers of the last 15 years, American presidents, right back to Jimmy Carter, all had a kind of lunch with him. That’s their problem, but we should be aware of it.
I’m not sure we can stop Julia Gillard having lunch with Murdoch, but we should know about it. It should be analysed to us, and not having somebody simply stand up and say some bit of tom-foolerly in front of a camera and saying something about the prime minister meeting Murdoch, if they report it at all [...] and particularly why Gillard has to see Murdoch. It’s pillars of power actually leaning towards each other and we deserve the kind of analysis that we don’t get in our major newspapers.
QUESTION 05: Challenging media in Britain about 50-50 split between giving time to Israel media angle and Palestinian media angle.
PILGER: Part of the film where I question the BBC and their competitors ITV on why they allowed the Israelis to have the, to dominate the coverage of the attack on the peace flotilla. And it’s very interesting because for the first time, I am told, in public, the BBC admitted the systemic intimidation, at all levels, from reporter, producer, up to director general, by Israeli officials. The ITV editor in chief agreed, in effect, when he talked about [indecipherable] propaganda. It’s, I suppose, I think the whole issue of Palestine has moved forward in public understanding hugely over recent years, hugely. And that has been a media response to this public awareness. Australia is largely an exception to this. As we have at the moment, a Murdoch newspaper, the only national newspaper in this country, The Australian, conducting an all-out smear campaign against a couple of Greens who happen to stick their [indecipherable] apparently, and state the obvious. That the connection, and we have something like a Murdoch retainer, [...] David Penberthy, describing what they were doing as reminiscent, and I paraphrase, of Kristallnacht, this is so obscene, so profane, and this connection between criticism of Israel and accusing people of being anti-Semitic, has to end in Australia.
It’s beginning to end. It’s beginning to end in the UK, it’s beginning to end even in the United States, in much of Europe, where people are finally being able, feeling that they can talk about it. And non-violent, completely non-violent campaigns, like the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions campaign, the BDS campaign, which is much more modest than the anti-Apartheid movement but based on that, and supported by the likes of Desmond Tutu, who speaking in the spirit of Nelson Mandela called Palestine the greatest moral issue of our era, are starting to discuss it. There are views on this and those views should be heard, but this thuggish intimidation of people who are simply standing up for a justice is something that is particularly striking in Australia and in the Australian media and in my view reflects the, that monopoly, that omission, censorship by omission that exists more in Australia, than practically in any other Western democracy.
QUESTION 06: You mentioned before about WikiLeaks, and I wanted to put it to you, one of the things released was Kevin Rudd saying to the States [indecipherable] to attack China, I just wonder, if [leaking] that necessarily is in Australia’s national interests, confidential conversations had that could damage our relationships, I was wondering whether or not a line should be drawn when revealing secrets that situation?
PILGER: Why do you think it is damaging?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Um, well our relations with China.
PILGER: If it’s based on a secret conversation between Kevin Rudd and Hillary Clinton in which he says I think you should deploy force against China, doesn’t that bear down on the relationship with the country that is not party to this conversation? Isn’t this something that we in a democracy have a right to know about? Especially when Mr Rudd is saying something quite different in public. That’s, I don’t know about lines being drawn, I think the line should’ve been drawn on countries being attacked and large numbers of people being killed, and lines being drawn by those who say one thing in private and another in public. They’re our elected, meant to be, elected representatives. What Rudd said was terribly important for us to know about.
It alerts the Chinese to how the Australian government is really thinking and perhaps alerts us to the real dangers of a policy that might not be in our interest, such as calling on the world’s superpower to have a go at China. I can’t see that that is in our interest, can you?
Be assured that most of what you read and hear is what they want us to, and anything that we get, any glimpses, they are only glimpses, I can assure you. That might come through a few outed documents, give us just a glimpse of how it really works.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: are you implying that states should not have any secrets?
PILGER: No, I didn’t say that, no. States should have secrets but before they have secrets they should be accountable, those states, those governments, to us. And until they are accountable, almost on a daily basis, because that is what democracy is, until they are accountable, their secrets are their secrets, not ours. The largest number of secrets are what they know about us, the network of surveillance now [...] is so enormous, and my view is, if they can read our emails, we should read theirs.
QUESTION 07: I’m a journalism student, who you refer to as potential Murdoch fodder I’m just wondering how, with all the consolidation of the mainstream media, and less money to go around to put fewer papers out, how do you actually keep your head above water and do decent investigative journalism?
PILGER: Well it’s very difficult, how you develop skills working for organisations like that, I think it’s almost impossible and I think we’ve got to – these are truths that have got to be faced – and they are hurdles that have to be got over. I think if one is interested in independent journalism, and the two should go together, the words independent and journalism, then yes, there are some institutions you can navigate through. Some broadcast institutions of course. That’s very difficult too. I don’t believe that is true of the Murdoch press. Yes, if you are writing, concentrating on something that doesn’t really have any political place – the gardening pages – (laughter) well, that’s alright, I used to sub the gardening pages once – or if you’re a sports writer, even that, see even that is loaded, Murdoch’s ownership of so much of the people’s pleasure: sport. So I frankly can tell you I don’t think it is possible in the Murdoch press. I think it is in other institutions. But really, there are now many avenues that young journalists, new journalists can go down, they don’t remunerate very well – the net pays nothing, usually – there are school newspapers, there is Green Left, I can tell you that the former editor in chief of the Sydney Morning Herald David Bowman subscribes [to Green Left Weekly] he’s retired, but he subscribes, to find out what the hell is going on.
So if you’re interested in being an independent journalist, it is exploring all departments, it is joining up, it is risky. But that’s a decision you have to make, you have judge it. It’s particularly difficult and I sympathise – in Australia, where there are two major, in newspapers, two major employers, Murdoch and Fairfax. I think that is something that you have to ask yourself.
QUESTION 08: Can I first just say to the journalism student there that asked that question – I’ve worked in the corporate media for 15 years and Green Left Weekly for two and a half years and I’ve learnt more in those two and a half years working for Green Left Weekly than I have in 15 years working for the corporate media. My question is, many people in Sydney see the Sydney Morning Herald as a kind of benign alternative to the Murdoch press, yet when you look at the Herald’s publisher, Fairfax, its directors sit on the boards of other companies and have very specific business interests.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Nick Fairfax sits on the board of JSC Sovcomflot, which ships energy products and operates oil tankers and ports…
PILGER: Yes. What is your question?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: My question to you is, how much of an influence do you think those specific business interests, those directorships, have on the kind of reporting that the Sydney Morning Herald and other papers like it, put out?
PILGER: I think they are absolutely direct. As they are on most newspapers that have very broad portfolio of backs, investors. I know this from enquiries done, into probably the most liberal paper in the world, The Guardian, in London, and they’re under the influence of their own corporate backers, or advertisers, on it. They’re there. I think it is the nature of newspapers, of any organisation, that depends on corporate backing. Business people are not there, it is not a charitable enterprise.
If you’re going to have a section called ‘Drive’ and it’s going to have all the cars and so on, they’re not going to welcome an enormous ad saying ‘you’re choking to death on the pollution in your street’ or that some of these cars have certain defects or whatever. If you go back to the famous case of Ralph Nader, who wrote a very good book called Unsafe at Any Speed, in which he blew the whistle on American auto manufacturers turning out cars that were killing people. He couldn’t get that in to newspapers for actually years, before it was finally released and in the end it had an effect and cars were recalled and changed, but it was enormous struggle.
I’m just giving that example because the advertising of motor cars, or the motor industry, is a major component, it may not be direct, it may, it’s not been said to me, when I’ve written for newspapers, that you have to, if you’re writing something about it, remember there is an ad, or something on the paper, but in the overall scheme of things, that will be taken into account. It reflects the overall tone of the newspaper. It certainly once again reflects what is left out.
QUESTION 09: Do you think it’s important for ordinary people to make our own avenues to communicate? [...]
PILGER: Yes, I think you’re doing absolutely the right way, you’re doing it yourself. [...] There is a tremendous appetite for documentaries, I know ITV, the company I make documentaries for, has these surveys constantly, people always come back, when they are asked what do they want most, it’s not reality shows, it’s not all that, it’s documentaries, they go at the top. And so you know, make documentaries, well done with what you’ve done.
QUESTION 10: Q&A, do you see it as a step forward or back?
PILGER: Well my last appearance, I’ve appeared on it twice, and both appearances have been distinguished by one fellow guest, who is apparently across the couple of years, and between times, coincidentally, no doubt, a minister called Craig Emerson, who I felt embodied all that was wrong about Australian politics. Of course almost everything he said, and I don’t want this to be personal, because he is personally very nice to me, but, avoided questions, questions were avoided.
The last Q&A I did I was plonked next to Greg Sheridan and they hoped there would be a fight between the two of us. I regretted going on, I have to say, I don’t regret many things, but I regretted that, and I won’t go on it again. I don’t think it is a step forward, I think occasionally, occasionally, when the questions come from the audience, or that wonderful time when that bloke threw a shoe at John Howard, that was worth it. But I don’t see the point otherwise. And it is being talked up now as a great vehicle for free discussion in Australia, it isn’t, it isn’t. The same old gang, media gang.
There is another thing on Sunday morning, which I’ve seen by accident I have to say, called Insiders, which is just atrocious. This is meant to be people strapping their heads – it’s laughable – there is no real discussion, there is no real information, no one has done any work.
QUESTION 11: United Stated media manipulation and propaganda, is there similar in Australia?
PILGER: There doesn’t have to be. They do it for them. That’s the point about – I mean, you’re right to suggest – there was a famous senate enquiry in the United States in the 1970′s that found that the CIA was involved in some form or another with most leading journalists.
[Camera cut out - a few seconds of this answer were missed]
[Question 11 answer continued...]
PILGER: They will do it. They won’t have the jobs if they don’t do it. That is why they are there to do it. I don’t want to in anyway minimise what you are suggesting, because Australia is absolutely overloaded with intelligence agencies. You know, we’ve got the famous UK and USA Security Act from the second world war that has allowed British intelligence, American intelligence, and our friends at ASIO and ASIS, there are so many of them with so many different basis [indecipherable] a lot of these weather bases across Australia are run for the benefit of international agencies and so on, the point is that we don’t, journalist enquiry into this doesn’t happen. Australia has been traditionally full of spooks -
AUDIENCE MEMBER: do you mean self-censorship as well?
PILGER: It goes even beyond self-censorship, I don’t think people even self-censor. I think they don’t even consider going another way, asking another question, raising it, because the legitimacy of certain questions that are made would be challenged by their own newspaper or organisation. It is so ingrained that authority, the voice from above, has legitimacy, government has legitimacy, institutions do, business does, anybody really claiming to be authority. They are first off the rank.
When I quoted earlier that survey from BBC, looking back, as I have, I’ve sat in a room looking at all these rushes and footage, and it is quite clear that no one, you know, ordinary person or unordinary person, was ever asked about whether they supported this invasion of Iraq. The occasional glimpse of a demo. And that kind of nicely marginalises anyway. So it is like mothers milk, I am afraid, it flows through media. And that is where media colleges and those who teach young journalists, they have to free themselves up, otherwise, as I mentioned, I think it is just producing fodder for organisations and keeping the penny turning around.
QUESTION 12: Regarding phrase from film, “Propaganda of Fear”, used to set agenda for war [...] could it also be used to target a faction or an individual [...] question everything we read?
PILGER: I think questioning should be part of what we do, it should be normal. And yes, propaganda is corruption. Corruption is not just having a hand in someones pocket [...] propaganda is corruption. It is denying people information on which they can make a decision to change things or not to change things. Jefferson called it the currency of free information, propaganda is something that we see as other societies [doing] we see it flowing out of the Middle East, we see it flowing out of demonized regimes [...] but propaganda is something others do.
When Edward Bernays invented the words public relations he said he did so because the journalists in the first world war gave propaganda a bad name. So he had to create what he called false realities. So it’s very subtle and Bernays of course was the nephew of Sigmund Freud so that whole, if you like, Freudian understanding of how we see things is certainly part of it, but it is much wider than that, and it is something that is in urgent need of debate in relation to the media that we get every day. Every time we get into a cab there is the radio [...] the question to ask is what are we getting out of this? Or is this information telling you the same thing over and over and over again, is it repetitive? I think the answer is yes.
QUESTION 13: You called the deaths of civilians in Iraq war crimes, what, in your view, can we do to bring those war criminals to justice?
PILGER: Well we can start thinking about these as war crimes. [...] The invasion of Iraq has killed about a million people. The Nuremberg [indecipherable] described the invasion of a defenceless country as the paramount war crime, in which all the other war crimes are embodies, I am paraphrasing slightly. The reason for that of course, had there not been an invasion of Europe of course, by the Germans, the Nazis, all those horrors probably wouldn’t have happened. I think people, I think we have changed enormously. And it’s that understanding that our “leaders” can commit war crimes [indecipherable] is starting to creep in.
In Britain, I’d never known a prime minister, former prime minister Blair, to be regarded as he is regarded. The majority regard him as a liar. That is unprecedented. Many, many people regard him as a war criminal. A lot of these people are finding it very difficult to plan their travel. Bush the other day, cancelled, George W Bush cancelled a trip to Switzerland. Switzerland has some quirky law, yes, oh yes, it’s quite a democratic country, and one of the laws, which is shared by others, is that if you invade another country and a lot of people are killed then you are on the face if it a war criminal, and you could be prosecuted.
Donald Rumsfeld cancelled a trip to Germany. A lot of the Israeli politicians and generals are starting to avoid Britain because Scotland Yard has actually turned up at Heathrow when the odd general has turned up. This has caused huge dismay in the government, and they are trying to change that. But these laws exist, and what they are doing is they are saying that “our people” are as much war criminals as others if they do commit war crimes. It is a long way to go until we regard them as we might regard Saddam Hussein and others but -
AUDIENCE MEMBER: How can we bring them to justice then?
PILGER: Well, it’s a long road, when the establishments in these countries do not want to bring them to justice.
QUESTION 14: Journalists in war zones, embedding has benefits, how can a journalist work independently in war zones?
PILGER: Thank you for your question, it was answered by somebody who you didn’t see in our film, and that was a very brave young English photojournalist called Guy Smallman who went to Afghanistan on his own, hitched a ride on a voluntary organisation plane, went there, paid his own fair, took his own equipment, didn’t wear a flak jacket. Went to a village in Farah province, which had been wiped out by an American plane, this resulted in the deaths of 147 people, this was disputed, he went there and gathered evidence. He took photographs and counted the mass graves, and he brought it back. That’s how you do it. In his case it was very, very dangerous, but some journalists believe in war time that it is worth it. Journalists have always done that.
But I don’t really believe that the problem is the embedding in the field, that is only part of the problem. The military has always done this. Part of the military’s job is to deceive, that is the way they win wars and it has been true going back to way beyond the modern era. The second world war is famous for its great deceptions and so on. I always regard that as part of the military’s thing, and as a journalist I should be aware of it, and my job is to make sure they don’t deceive me, not to get into bed with them. But I think the problem is not so much that, it is wider embedding that we’ve been discussing here tonight. It’s a wider embedding that goes up to the people who report Canberra, it’s the people who run certain programs on television, the people who write in the Sydney Morning Herald and are flown to the Middle East by the Israeli government or its promoters, it is that kind of embedding that excludes the journalistic challenge, and excludes other views that give people enough information, and a spectrum of other information, upon which to make up their minds. That’s missing.