It is rare, these days, to see the bloodhound like features of John Pilger on television - rare, but welcome. John Pilger made his name as a crusading, left journalist, exposing the truth from the perspective of the poor, the oppressed, and the exploited, especially focussing on the victims of American imperialism such as Vietnam and Cambodia.
It is rare, these days, to see the bloodhound like features of John Pilger on television - rare, but welcome. Occasionally ITV let him out of his kennel and nervously let him off the leash for a short run. For John Pilger made his name as a crusading, left journalist, exposing the truth from the perspective of the poor, the oppressed, and the exploited, especially focussing on the victims of American imperialism such as Vietnam and Cambodia.
In the 1970s and 1980s, when it was trendy to be on the left, a Pilger documentary merited a prime time slot, and would be well trailed in advance so that everyone could tune in to the main event. Now, it's difficult to sees who can watch them - students will probably be in the pub, and if you work (unless you've just come in from an afternoon shift) you'll be nodding off at such a late hour. If you're in school, these kinds of documentaries are screened opposite comedies on BBC2, that have lots of swear words - tough competition. Nonetheless it is worth the effort to find them.
This programme began in classic Pilger style; black and white stills of crying, injured, women and children, charred bodies in bleached, dusty streets among sad ruins, accompanied by the chilling words of "freedom" and "liberation" from Blair and Bush. So, even before you see those baleful Pilger eyes, you're already angry. It's not just his face that is like a bloodhound - his journalism sniffs out and exposes those embarrassing facts which give the lie to the hypocrisy of the imperialists.
His opening statement accused the US of being "a rapacious imperial power", and that the US and UK were responsible for "the terrorism that dare not speak it's name, because it's our terrorism". Next they screened an interview with a mother who showed cherished photographs of her entire family - they had all been killed in the bombing of Kabul after a 500-pound US bomb hit her house. After graphically describing the injuries they suffered, she said that while some spoke of the joy of freedom, "for us day and night are all the same, full of sorrow".
Pilger bombarded us with facts - more than 3000 people were bombed to death in Afghanistan, more than were killed on September 11.And as for all the empty promises of recreating "civilisation", of the $10 million spent in Afghanistan since the invasion, only 3% of international aid has been spent on reconstruction. Cluster bombs remain, unexploded, like litter, amongst the rubble of bombed out buildings used by children as playgrounds. An Afghan government spokesman gave an ironic smile to the camera and confirmed that of the £300 million budget they had, there was NO money for reconstruction. Bush's much-lauded Minister for Women (in the so-called Afghan government), after her international heralding as an example of how the west was building women's rights with spent shells, was almost immediately pushed out of office. She was forced out by the warlords who now run Afghanistan, who Pilger chronicled as being just as bad as the Taliban. She is now confined to a house surrounded by bodyguards to protect her from the very people the US helped to come to power, the warlords of the "Northern Alliance".
These have now re-established the opium trade, which accounts for a major proportion of all the heroin sold on British and American streets. In truth most of the damage caused to Kabul was caused by these ruthless terrorists armed and bribed by the US. And what about the women who are supposed to be enjoying new-found freedom? They have no access to healthcare or education. They are subject to mass rapes and being stopped and arrested if they are found to be accompanied by a man other than their husband or close relative - even if he's a taxi driver. If they are found to be with a man who is none of these then they are subjected to "chastity checks" by the warlords' gunmen!
All of this served as the first chapter in Pilger's attack on the "war against terror". He linked the invasion of Afghanistan with the US's original arming and training of the Mujahadin, when Jimmy Carter authorised $500 million for support of Islamic extremists there. The excuse the US administration has given for this was that it was to support the Mujahadin in their "war of liberation" against the Russians. But this doesn't fit with the facts, for, as Pilger explained, the money was handed over to the Islamic fundamentalists 6 months before the Soviet invasion.
He then went on to chronicle the US's real role as sponsor of international terror for decades. The School of the Americas was a US special training camp where terrorists (or should we call them army officers?) from Panama, Guatemala, Honduras and so on were "educated" in the finer arts of torture, interrogation and so on. Included among the "scholars" were, of course, Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden.
Pilger showed old newsreel of Donald Rumsfeld warmly shaking Saddam Hussein by the hand in 1986, and also detailed US government records of the supply of chemical, biological and conventional weapons to Iraq.
Then he questioned the author of the now infamous, Project for an American 21st Century, William Kristol. A George Bush Senior aid is also interviewed where he describes Kristol as one of "the Crazies", together with Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld and the rest of the gang that now are in the US administration. The "crazies" were to be kept at arms length even under Bush Senior. Bush Junior surrounds himself with these ultra-reactionaries. Pilger put it to Kristol that the US had intervened in 72 countries since 1945, and when Kristol denied this, he produced the list. Of course it should have come as no surprise to the man who has argued that in this century the US should "fight multiple wars simultaneously" to establish global domination. Nonetheless he barefacedly denied what are well-documented facts.
What really touched a nerve, was Pilger's questioning of a US government official on the amount of civilian deaths in Iraq during the recent war. Pilger pointed out to him that an estimated 10,000 civilians had died. The official denies this, trying to cover his tracks by saying the US doesn't "target civilians"! The official was becoming more and more nervous as he was clearly lying. At that point a Colonel from behind the scenes stepped in and ordered Pilger to stop filming. The screen goes blank but the voice of the Colonel can be heard. This little scene reveals that even top US government officials are censored by military personnel that decide what is good for us.
In another interview, another equally shifty US government official found Pilger's questioning too much. At the end of the interview, with the camera still filming, he asked Pilger first whether he was a member of the Labour Party, then he went further and asked, "Are you a member of the Communist Party?" This goes a long way to exposing what obtuse, ignorant and downright reactionary elements are in key positions of the Bush administration. Anything that does not fit in to their narrow money grabbing mentality is seen as subversive, as "communist".
This was the side of the coin we don't normally see on TV news. Pilger's journalism is counter-propaganda; it exposes the lies of the official media. And we are none the worse for it - we need more of this! But this kind of campaigning journalism causes too much fear in the independent capitalist TV companies, and that explains why it is so rare. Even the BBC fights shy of such controversy. We only have to look at the way a bland journalist like Andrew Gilligan has been treated to see why.
Pilger's case is one which Socialist Appeal would support. Even the ex-Labour Environment Minister, Michael Meacher, has rightly stated that the "war against terror" is a smokescreen for a pre-determined, aggressively imperialist US foreign policy, designed to protect American capitalism's oil supply and strategic interests and also, that September 11 has been used as an excuse for these entirely hypocritical "simultaneous, multiple wars". We would entirely agree.
However, in spite of his very good investigative journalism and exposure of the powers that be, there is a down side to John Pilger's documentaries. They have the effect of depressing you with the accumulation of horrific facts and figures. His hangdog features and monotone commentary match his usual implied message - that "they" are so powerful and "there's nothing we can do - we're all doooomed!"
In this documentary he inches towards the class perspective he sorely needs, but unfortunately falls short, rather like Michael Moore, in the actual solutions. "There are only two world powers, the US and public opinion, which is growing stronger as it sees through the lies and hypocrisy." This is more or less his conclusion. How this "public opinion" is to be harnessed and directed against the imperialists and the whole massive apparatus of the capitalist class is not explained.
Ultimately, only the working class internationally, can defeat the might of the imperialists, and overthrow the system which makes such "horror without end" a necessity. That is the message Marxists would deliver to the workers if they had a chance to transmit a one-hour documentary on one of the main TV channels. Nonetheless we should recognise the role a John Pilger can play in at least exposing the contradictions in the propaganda of Bush, Blair and their rich backers. We should give the bloodhound a pat on the head for this concise, moving and agitational documentary, before they lock him away again, and we have to wait for his next outing.