The View From The Ground

Interview with John Pilger published on ZNet, by Michael Albert, February 16, 2013.

… 3. Have you felt, over the years, that your efforts have had the effects you sought, and those hoped for? If not, why do you think that is – and what might occur to increase the effects?

  • That’s often impossible to measure and, anyway, the aim of good journalism is or ought to be to give people the power of information – without which they cannot claim certain freedoms. It’s as straightforward as that. Now and then you do see the effects of a particular documentary or series of reports. In Cambodia, more than $50 million were given by the public, entirely unsolicited, following my first film; and my colleagues and I were able to use this to buy medical supplies, food and clothing. Several governments changed their policies as a result. Something similar happened following the showing of my documentary on East Timor – filmed, most of it, in secret. Following its broadcast in the UK, some 25,000 people called the ITV every minute, wanting to help and to know more. That was heartening, to say the least. Did it effect the situation in East Timor? No, but it did contribute to the long years of tireless work by people all over the world.

4. How has your media work been changed, or otherwise affected over the years, if at all, by the emergence of internet activity and, most recently, Google, Facebook, and Twitter? Do you see significant changes that affect the basic aims or methods of your own work – or that affect its effectivity? How do you assess the emergence of “social networking” and its impact on journalism and information flow?

  • I used to pick up a selection of newspapers every morning. Now I log on to the web. That’s the change. Google is remarkable, of course, but it’s not the same as the kind of research that will always require time and patience, and tenacious work. Twitter and Facebook are essentially about the “self”; they allow people to talk to themselves — and often to make fools of themselves. Ironically, they can separate us even further from each other: enclose us in a bubble-world of smart phones, and fragmented information, and magpie commentary. Thinking is more fun, I think

5. As someone who has had considerable visibility in, but also steadfastly critiqued mainstream media for, I guess, decades, and has also been a very strong supporter and advocate for alternative media – what do you think we in alternative media have done wrong? Why haven’t we built larger audiences and larger means of communications and outreach? Are there problems with our structures, policies, our content that might be corrected to yield better results?

  • I don’t agree with your premise. “Alternative” media has built audiences and reached out, and achieved extraordinary results. In Latin America, community radio has become a voice of people in the barrios. The propaganda that accused Hugo Chavez of attacking the “free” media in Venezuela (i.e. monopolies) ignored the fact that community radio had expanded as never before. There’s a similar situation in Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina. In the US, Pacifica Radio at its best is an inspiration. Take Dennis Bernstein’s programmes. On the web, your own ZNet reaches out, as does Tom Feeley’s Information Clearing House, and Truthout, and therealnews.com, and many more.

6. As you look forward, what do you think are the prospects for a more serious flow of critical, visionary, content to wide audiences? What steps do you think might permit and generate that either by an improved alternative media – or by a mainstream media forced to do better, even against its own purposes and logic?

  • The so-called mainstream media will never contradict its own logic. It is an extension of established authority; it is not, as Edmund Burke wanted us to believe: a “fourth estate”. But it’s not monolithic. I have worked all my career in the mainstream. I’ve done this by expending a huge amount of energy in maintaining my place, and fighting my corner. It has been often and literally a struggle, but in time I learned to navigate through and sometimes around institutions. Learning to navigate is critical for young, principled journalists.
  • What we need urgently is a “fifth estate” that challenges the autocracy of the corporate media, that includes and gives voice to the public, that mounts an invasion of institutions — TV, newspapers, media colleges –  calling on journalists and their teachers to drop their defensiveness and promoting another way of seeing and working. In practical terms, we should be working to create publicly funded organisations that provide seed money to new, independent journalistic ventures. This has enjoyed success in Scandinavia.

7. As fast as everything changes, at one level, at another deeper level, yesterday seems to keep coming around. How would you describe the logic and scope of American Foreign policy – and also international relations more broadly – say, forty years ago, and now? Are there substantial differences?

  • I seldom use the almost respectable term, US foreign policy; US designs for the world is the correct term, surely. These designs have been running along a straight line since 1944 when the Bretton Woods conference ordained the US as the number one imperial power. The line has known occasional interruptions such as the retreat from Saigon and the triumph of the Sandinistas, but the designs have never changed. They are to dominate humanity. What has changed is that they are often disguised by the modern power of public relations, a term Edward Bernays invented during the first world war because “the Germans have given propaganda a bad name”.
  • With every administration, it seems, the aims are “spun” further into the realm of fantasy while becoming more and more extreme. Bill Clinton, still known by the terminally naive as a “progressive”, actually upped the ante on the Reagan administration, with the iniquities of NAFTA and assorted killing around the world. What is especially dangerous today is that the US’s wilfully and criminally collapsed economy (collapsed for ordinary people) and the unchallenged pre-eminence of the parasitical “defence” industries have followed a familiar logic that leads to greater militarism, bloodshed and economic hardship.
  • The current spoiling for a fight with China is a symptom of this, as is the invasion of Africa. That said, look back on the Eisenhower/Dulles years and the US elite was in a not dissimilar mood; only the presence of the Soviets held them back. 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 – look at the hysterical pursuit of WikiLeaks. 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.

8. As with trying to create an alternative to mainstream media, we have of course also sought to deter and finally replace the sources of war and inequality by aiding and participating in movements to that end. Here too, being objective about it, it seems we have less to show for four decades of effort than we expected and hoped for all along, certainly, and arguably than we might have achieved had we done better. If you agree, what do you think the anti war and anti imperialist movements you saw and aided over these years have been good at, and what do you think they have fallen short at, or even been quite poor at?

  • As mentioned, my political education was honed among the US anti-war people of the 1960s and 70s. I admired their imagination, resourcefulness and courage. Then the movement wilted, understandably. For at its heart had been the anti-draft movement: an essentially middle-class resistance to sending the “boys” to a war they and eventually their families didn’t like. When the war was over, the camaraderie of the anti-war veterans and others remained, but public support dissipated. This suggested that a political driver was missing — unsurprisingly.
  • The difficulty in the US is that the principal political force is Americanism, an ideology that rarely speaks its intentions. It’s an exceptionalism, a mysticism, a hocus pocus of so-called patriotism designed to trump any rationale debate about class and peace. I find that even enlightened people I know fall victim to the nonsense that the US invented democracy and is God’s Chosen One. The Native Americans got the same spiel before they were slaughtered. So did the Filipinos. And so on.
  • US anti-war movements are seldom internationalist. The US has never had a Labour Party, so anti-war people cling to the Democratic Party which, apart from its populist phase, was always militarist. The coup de grace to the peace mass movement in the US was delivered when Barack Obama was elected. The fawning over the first African-American president was a pretty disgusting spectacle when you look at his record, particularly towards people of colour all over the world. So many forgot that George W Bush could boast the most multi-racial cabinet in US history; his secretary of state, his national security adviser, his attorney general were Americans of colour, and vicious reactionaries. Who dared stand up and say that, once subverted by power, it’s not your race or your gender or your sexual preference or your class that matters, it’s the class and power you serve. Obama is the Great Servitor, and his most enduring achievement is all but silencing the contemporary anti-war movement.

9. Again, looking forward, how do you think we might do better, in the period ahead?

  • If by “we” you mean ordinary people, we have no choice but to keep standing up, to keep informing others and organising, and not to allow a mutated “popular culture” or hi-jacked issues of “identity” and “self” deflect us into believe that consumerist lifestyle is real change.

10. What would international relations be like, say fifty years in the future – not country by country but in terms of general relationships – if it was as it ought to be?

  • Mike, I’m not and have never been a futurist. I predict badly; however, I’m confident that if we remain silent while the US war state, now rampant, continues on its bloody path, we bequeath to our children and grandchildren a world with an apocalyptic climate, broken dreams of a better life for all and, as the unlamented General Petraeus put it, a state of “perpetual war”. Do we accept that or do we fight back?

(full interview text).

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