The Americans and the British are getting their news angle. The Arab world is now getting its own, but how well are we being served by our media. A war is the most serious endeavour a nation can undertake, yet the national debate seems to be occurring more in lounge rooms and on the street than, with the exception of talkback radio, in our national media. One of the harshest critics of the Australian media is John Pilger. Well known and widely published in Britain he’s virtually invisible in the Australian press. His forum in Australia is the public meeting. We spent a day with him recently in Sydney.
2 Apr 2003 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 23 Aug 2013 - 11:52 AM

REPORTER: Mark Davis

The Sydney anti-war rally in February. One of the star attractions is expatriate journalist, author and film-maker John Pilger.

JOHN PILGER (AT RALLY): So let us reassure Howard and Bush and Blair and their hangers-on that they have every reason to be afraid.

Pilger's articles on Iraq, the media and the war are published in multiple newspapers around the world, but not here. His writings are known to this crowd courtesy of email and the Internet, not any Australian media organisation.

JOHN PILGER (AT RALLY): And we are the majority. Thank you.

JOHN PILGER: People like Chomsky and myself are referred to in the Australian press, you know, we get a little serve from Miranda Divine or Gerard Henderson, but the readers of the 'Sydney Morning Herald', the readers of the 'Age', the readers of the 'Australian' aren't allowed to read the context, actually what we write. A critical reference, but not the body of our work. I don't know of any other country that really does that with my work.

For the past three years, one of Pilger's journalistic specialities has been Iraq. His films are run on commercial TV in Britain and his articles published weekly in one of their biggest tabloids, but virtually never here.

JOHN PILGER: I'm unpopular as far as media executives are concerned.


JOHN PILGER: It's interesting. There are two levels of it, but I would think quite popular amongst journalists, who almost furtively say to me, you know, “Keep doing what you're doing,” or I'm invited to say something on a particular program that they dare not say. So I become their sort of fifth column in this system.

But in recent months, as Australia has plunged towards war, he hasn't even been used as a fifth columnist. Desperate for something to say about Iraq, TV stations and newspapers have been eager to talk to any retired general, but in all the chatter about balance and diversity, Pilger's absence has been conspicuous to say the least. And it's not through any difficulty of access - he's been living in Sydney for the past four months, filing reports for the UK.

JOHN PILGER (ADDRESSING CLASS): We're here to, I hope, discuss independent journalism. It doesn't exist. Only as honourable exceptions in Australia. I'm being blunt because that's the truth.

John Pilger may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it seems but it seems odd that his message is deemed too unpalatable for sensitive Australian ears.

JOHN PILGER (ADDRESSING CLASS): There are two wars going on. They're being bombed in Iraq, we're being bombed with propaganda. And yet the ABC is embedded. Are we that stupid? It is NOT the most reported war, it is the most controlled war.

REPORTER: You've spoken for many years about the state of the Australian media, but is that message now finding a more receptive audience in a time of crisis like this? It seems that part of your audience is even more bleak and cynical than you are about the state of news and current affairs.

JOHN PILGER: I'm not sure I'm bleak and cynical, Mark. I'm critical, and I think all journalists have to do, and that's what I've tried to do, is apply a professional scepticism to their own craft. Criticism of the media often produces a defensiveness, but again, it's a public defensiveness. In private, as I've mentioned, you get so many journalists agreeing with you. Now really something has to happen because this kind of reporting, when every day we pick up newspapers we regard as good, and it's just page after page of really...even if it's not overt, but insidious pro-war stuff, as if this is World War II all over again, with maps, instead of a completely rapacious attack on a country for the most deeply cynical reasons. I mean, that's the truth of this thing, and it isn't being projected that way.

JOHN PILGER (ADDRESSING CLASS): This is this morning's 'Sydney Morning Herald'. Now, all these headlines need to be decoded. "Monster victory US warns." That should read, "US in big trouble". That's our national newspaper. This is a false story. This is a false story. And of course we'll have the usual thing from Murdoch executives and Murdoch - "No-one tells me what to do." They don't have to. That's the answer to that.

It's classic Pilger. Only now his themes of media manipulation in Australia don't just concern the death of democracy, but the death of innocence. A situation he lays in part at the feet of the media.

JOHN PILGER (ADDRESSING CLASS): Have they not echoed and channelled all that mendacious information, most of it? I think that, especially in the United States, I don't think this attack would have taken place.

REPORTER: You've charged the media with complicity in publishing propaganda which has led us into this war. Apart from being part of an anti-war cheer squad, what difference could the media have made in this period?

JOHN PILGER: I'm worried about your expression "anti-war cheer squad", I have to say, Mark, because I think it's more than that. The majority of humanity are actually against this illegal and frankly criminal war. So I think language is important and "cheer squad" we're not part of. I think that's quite important.

REPORTER: What could the media have been doing, the media were...

JOHN PILGER: Telling the truth, not echoing and channelling the views of the pro-war cheer squad and a cheer squad they are.

JOHN PILGER (ADDRESSING CLASS): This is about the Americans complaining about their POWs being paraded. Now he's got a gun at his head and he's getting water, so we're not quite sure what's happening there. But the same picture - "Liberation". This was last Sunday. While Australians were getting all this nonsense, the 'Independent" - this is the reality of war - "We bombed, they suffer" - Robert Fisk.

Today's meeting with journalism students is a dress rehearsal for his evening public appearance, a talk and screening of his film on Iraq. The event has had no publicity but it sold out within days.

JOHN PILGER: It says there's a great hunger for this kind of debate and it says that this kind of debate just isn't happening in the mainstream media. I would think never before has the public meeting, public debate, been more popular. And the reason it's never been more popular is that the venue of debate that has been accepted until now, that is on television and radio and in the newspapers, is no longer acceptable to people, is not providing a debate. It's so narrow now that the issues that are troubling people, that people understand about, are simply not arising in the media.

It's Pilger's analysis of the media, as much as his opinion on Iraq, that draws the crowds. More than 1,000 have come to hear from Pilger tonight, hundreds turned away. The majority of them, it seems, deeply suspicious of the media coverage through the initial stages of this war.

YOUNG MAN (IN HALL): All we're hearing is on the news from sort of CNN and the mainstream channels. So it's sort of good to get a hopefully what might be an objective opinion.

REPORTER: You don't feel you're getting an objective opinion in the media today?

YOUNG MAN (IN HALL): I don't know, to be honest. I don't know what to believe.

REPORTER: You feel you're not getting enough perspective from the media?

MAN (IN HALL): I'm getting a perspective from the media alright - I'm copping it right up the arse. I'm getting a perspective like you wouldn't believe. I've just come back from Europe, having gone twice, and a dead man has actually woken up at last after 50 years hibernation. I could, walking through the streets of any major European city, have a plethora of views and analysis over issues like the coming Iraqi question which would absolutely astound you. I come back to Australia and it's just this sort of baby talk of CNN and this post-Hobbesian-like imbecility. I just can't believe it.

REPORTER: Is it a message you're not getting elsewhere?

WOMAN (IN HALL): Yeah, for sure, the mainstream media certainly isn't delivering it.

REPORTER: Well, maybe not the main stream. What about ABC, the 'Sydney Morning Herald'?

WOMAN (IN HALL): I'm still sceptical of those names, those forms of media as well, actually.

REPORTER: Whether you're getting the truth or whether you're getting a scope of opinion?

WOMAN (IN HALL): Yep, exactly. Like, a lot of our news stories are coming from America, even if it's the ABC, so...

JOHN PILGER (AT MEETING): They may be our governments, but at the same time they may be our enemies.

To date, despite representing a large section at least of the Australian population, the anti-war movement has been largely an organic one, certainly not fed or promoted by any national media, its views expressed more often in rallies and meetings like this than in our national broadcasters or newspapers.

REPORTER: There are public demonstrations, there are public rallies with absolutely no encouragement from the media, but doesn't that work against your argument, doesn't that mean that people are able to sift information and make their own judgments?

JOHN PILGER: I think people get very... I think people are becoming very, very skilful at deconstructing the media. I think many people monitor the media now rather than believe it.

JOHN PILGER (AT MEETING): But I do know this movement is quite unstoppable and you should take heart from that.

Cynicism about the media does seem to be growing. If the war drags on, the real national debate may be conducted in Internet cafes and hired halls.