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John Pilger on Obama's drone war

The indefatigable truthseeking journalist on apartheid Australia and the consequences of drone war

Taken from the January issue of Dazed and Confused:

The multi-award-winning Australian journalist and filmmaker John Pilger has covered – and helped uncover – many of the past half-century’s major events: from the Vietnam war and Pol Pot’s 1970s Cambodian genocide to covert American intervention in Latin America and ceaseless conflicts in the Middle East. Outspoken on western democratic and media corruption, Pilger is an uncompromising truth-seeker whose published books include the bestselling Heroes, Hidden Agendas and The New Rulers of the World. But despite this global outlook, Pilger has also regularly reported on his homeland’s systematic oppression of its indigenous people, a subject he returns to in his latest documentary. Utopia reveals again the shameful legislation with which a ruling class persecutes a vulnerable minority: classic Pilger territory. 

Dazed Digital: Were you shocked to see how bad things still are for Australia’s indigenous population?

John Pilger: I’ve kept in touch with the situation over many years so I knew all the indicators were pretty bad. What shocked me again once I investigated was the enduring political cynicism on the matter.

DD: What convinced you to revisit this topic again?

John Pilger: It was the so-called ‘intervention’ in 2006-7 that really made me think I had to do another film. Especially the way the media was used to ignite a bogus emergency. It was not the kind of intervention that should’ve happened years ago: providing indigenous people with the same rights and services most Australians take for granted. It was a punitive operation that sought to smear them, a means of continuing a historic land-grab and socially engineering Aboriginal communities in the spirit, if not the letter, of apartheid society.

DD: Yet Australia largely seems to avoid the global condemnation other nations endure. Why?

John Pilger: I think it’s because Australia is regarded in Britain as family – as indeed South Africa was for a very long time. The opprobrium heaped upon white South Africa only came very late in the day. And because Australia has projected itself as this ‘lucky country’ – even though the term was coined ironically by (author) Donald Horne. From memory, the quote is something like, ‘Australia is a lucky country because it’s a first-rate country run by second-rate people.’ In many ways Australia is a lucky country – a relatively small population in a country of natural riches. But the treatment of indigenous people has always been a disgrace that people prefer not to talk about.

“I’ve never subscribed to the idea that as journalists or filmmakers, we’re immune to what we see or report. I’ve always been affected. Not disabled, but affected”

DD: Does genuine change seem possible? 

John Pilger: Well, I hope so. This is the fourth film I’ve made on this subject and in the past there has been quite a powerful reaction, including quite a hostile reaction from sections of the media, which you’d expect. I suppose the aim of the film is not to give anyone watching it in Australia a way out, thereby almost forcing them to engage with the subject and think anew about their own attitudes to Aboriginal people. Non-indigenous Australians are lucky to have such an extraordinary culture in their midst. Not to draw on that enrichment of their society is nonsensical.

DD: You’ve made around 60 documentaries. Have you changed as a filmmaker? 

John Pilger: I suppose some things don’t change. I’ve always regarded myself as a reporter and as a witness. The films have to be able to contextualise something, use the medium to explain the past, have a historical element. A documentary allows you to go into people’s lives, allows them to tell their stories. Above all it’s about expressing something about humanity without exploiting humanity.

DD: With the rise in popularity of documentaries in the last few years, styles have changed. What’s your assessment of that?

John Pilger: Documentaries went through a period when people thought they could simply pick up a small camera and become documentary makers. That just didn’t work. The shaky-camera era, in which people parachute into somewhere and because the technology allows them to film there, give the impression they’re making a documentary. They’re not – it’s often merely a documentary about themselves. 

“Obama is conducting probably the most far-reaching war of terror that we’ve ever seen – the drone war right across the world” 

DD: Your entire career has dealt with exposing – and being exposed to – horrendous human rights abuse. How have you coped with that? 

John Pilger: Does it affect me? Yes, of course. I’ve never subscribed to the idea that as journalists or filmmakers, we’re immune to what we see or report. I’ve always been affected. Not disabled, but affected.

DD: So all the corruption, oppression and suffering don’t overwhelm you? 

John Pilger: It is a privilege to film people’s lives and it’s important – without sounding too pompous – to make as wide an audience as possible aware of how power works. As journalists and filmmakers, our job is to give people the information that helps them make sense of the world and, if they wish, change their lives.

DD: You’ve been very critical of Barack Obama. Isn’t there a distinction between him and, say, as in the last US election, Mitt Romney?

John Pilger: Well, if you want an acceptable smiling face and good news, you’re not going to get it. There’s no difference between Romney and Obama; Obama in many ways is more extreme than George W Bush and is just as much a creature of the system. Obama is conducting probably the most far-reaching war of terror that we’ve ever seen – the drone war right across the world. He rewarded those Wall Street people who brought so much ruin to people’s lives in 2008, he kept the same defence department, the same sense of exceptionalism by which America deludes itself. The only distinction about Obama is that he’s the first African-American president in the land of slavery. That’s where the distinction ends, period. 

DD: Taken as a whole, it could be argued your work shows an incredibly bleak worldview.

John Pilger: But in almost all the films, there’s a sense of struggle – people standing up to rapacious power imposed on them. Their resilience is a story to be told in itself and I’ve drawn personal inspiration from them. And many of my films deliberately contain black humour – the absurdity of the CIA man who couldn’t remember the name of the president of Chile he helped overthrow, the president of the Coca-Cola company singing a hymn of praise to a bottle of sugary water. My favourite book is Catch-22. I like to think its spirit is alive in my films.

DD: Thomas Jefferson’s quote ‘information is the currency of democracy’ seems to underpin your very public support of WikiLeaks. 

John Pilger: What these disclosures confirmed was that many colonial wars are simply mass homicides. It was true in Vietnam, in Afghanistan, in Iraq. They confirmed that democratic governments misrepresent our interests and that there’s no such thing as morality in unaccountable, secret power. 

DD: What about the charge that WikiLeaks has been reckless in revealing too much information – for example, identities of covert agents?

John Pilger: It’s propaganda. During the revelations of the Afghanistan and Iraq war logs, not one American official could name a single person who had felt some retribution as a consequence. I asked Australian filmmaker Mark Davis, who was with Julian Assange when he was negotiating the war logs with The Guardian. Davis was very clear: he watched Assange work through two nights redacting names. Yet the myth that WikiLeaks has caused casualties has been embedded in books and films, the latest attempts being The Fifth Estate and the Alex Gibney documentary on Julian Assange. 

DD: Yet more media complicity?

John Pilger: The smearing of Assange and to some degree Edward Snowden and Bradley or Chelsea Manning is the result of their whistleblowing, providing the public with information that people have a right to know. Many journalists failed to do this and took governments at their word, echoing lies. The whistleblowers have shamed the media and it’s hardly surprising that the defensive response of some journalists has been personal. I find WikiLeaks an exciting development. This is disclosure; this is real journalism.