[Media-watch] Telling no lies - Pilger interview - The Oxford Student - 14/10/2004

Julie-ann Davies jadavies2004 at yahoo.co.uk
Fri Oct 15 20:32:27 BST 2004


Telling No Lies

Veteran journalist and New Statesman columnist John Pilger talks to Charles 
Brendon about what it should mean to be a reporter, and the direction of the 
global media today
Charles Brendon

It might reasonably be argued that there are two potential motives for 
pursuing a career in the media. The first, entertained by any number of 
journalists, editors and 'press barons' from Morgan to Murdoch, is a desire 
for influence, and with it power - a wish, as Thomas Carlyle put it, to be: 
"a ruler of the world, by being the persuader of it".

However, the second, generally incompatible such motive is a simple, 
dedicated desire to tell the truth - and in so doing not to steer the 
political forces of the day, but to keep them in check. It is to this 
viewpoint that John Pilger subscribes.

A veteran reporter and war correspondent, Pilger witnessed the tragedies of 
1970s Vietnam and Cambodia first hand. His relentless desire to expose 
hypocrisy of Western governments has resulted in his commanding respect from 
Britain's self-styled Left like none other - so much so that David 
Aaronovitch recently dubbed his fortnightly spot in the New Statesman: "more 
a shrine than a column". On the day his new book, Tell Me No Lies, went on 
sale in the UK, Pilger spoke to The Oxford Student, offering his thoughts on 
the profession that has governed his life. At times stubborn, at times 
impatient - but always fiercely eloquent in defence of his views - he began 
by outlining what exactly he saw as the role of today's journalist:

"To keep the record straight. And, almost as important, to make sense of 
events - not simply to be a channel, but to make sense of events. The 
paramount role of journalists who are involved in serious affairs, like 
world affairs, is to call unaccountable power to account".

How, though, should reporters do this?

"By investigating power; not echoing it but challenging it - always 
challenging it. Martha Gellhorn, the great American reporter, once said that 
journalists should see the world from the ground up, not the top down".

This is an idea to which Pilger clearly attaches some weight, repeating 'the 
ground up' time and again. It is reflected, too, in his work, with reports 
frequently focusing on the individual, human players caught up in struggles 
not of their making - the 'Heroes' of his 1986 book of that title. Yet does 
he not believe it hard for any foreign correspondent to see the world "from 
the ground up", without losing sight of the overview so necessary to make 
sense of events?

"Well a lot of things are hard, that doesn't mean you shouldn't do it". How 
do you do it though? Paint a giant picture based on individual lives? "Well, 
it's as much attitude as anything. If you've been trained to see the world 
through the eyes of authority and not to question it then you'll lead a very 
blinkered life, and you're not going to be a very effective journalist. All 
you're going to be is a functionary, parroting press releases. You may 
imagine you're playing an important role, but you're not really - you're 
'on-side', and being 'on-side' is not what journalism is about. If you go 
back to the original journalists - from Swift to Dickens, right through - 
they were not 'on-side', they were 'off-side'. That is a concept that has to 
be revived today".

Yet Pilger has frequently lamented the extent to which large corporations - 
particularly Rupert Murdoch's News International - are able to dictate 'from 
above' the news agenda at any given moment in time. If the mainstream media 
is not going to permit journalists that are 'off-side', we are asking the 
public to rely upon other, independent sources for news - weblogs, 
low-budget papers and small-scale broadcasters. Does Pilger seriously 
believe that this independent media can 'take off' and become mainstream?

"I think it can. I don't think it will ever fully supplant the mass media, 
but the hunger among the public for real journalism has never been greater - 
certainly not in my experience".

"Is that true with regards the entire public?"


"Including the tabloid-reading public? What about The Mirror's coverage of 
the Iraq war..."

"Yes, it succeeded".

"But Piers Morgan claimed that he could get as much terrific stuff in the 
paper as he liked - all it took to raise the circulation figures by 100,000 
was to put a picture of Jordan on the front page."

"Well Piers Morgan would say things like that. I was on The Mirror during 
those 18 months leading up to the war, and I've never known such a response 
from the public. I also work for commercial television: you can have things 
called 'ratings' that will really give you no indication of the penetration 
of your programme - you need a qualitative measure, not a quantitative one".

Returning to this issue later, I asked Pilger whether it was ever reasonable 
to take commercial success as a measure of actual success in the media.

"No, I don't think it is reasonable at all. Morgan's argument - and it's 
much more interesting than his remarks about Jordan - was that to change The 
Mirror from the paper it had become, and that is a paper of no consequence, 
a trivial paper, to change it and to elevate it was always going to take 
time. It was always going to take at least three or four years to do. Had 
the American backers [of the paper] waited - ignored the lack of 'commercial 
success' - there could have been a return to the paper's heyday. [The 
Mirror] dominated the newspaper market in Britain from the mid-1950s until 
the early 1990s. I firmly believe that Piers Morgan could have achieved 
success with The Mirror".

Yet how would such success be measured - if Pilger is not permitting 
circulation figures as a valid barometer?

"By how much truth the paper told".

And that is John Pilger; a man with a firm belief in his democratic duty to 
tell the whole truth. Some might find him pious, simplistic - even 
contradictory. But if we are to prevent the 'dehumanisation' of entire 
peoples necessary for international realpolitik to prevail, we need 
reporters from this 'ground up' school of journalism. After all, if human 
beings are reduced to the status of on-the-hour computer graphics, what hope 
have they of winning our hearts and minds?

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