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Pilger Can’t Help Himself (Even When He’s Half Right)

April 12, 2011

John Pilger

If you can’t make some hits savaging the disastrous Anglo-American invasion of Iraq you can’t win any argument. So it was easy pickings for polemicist John Pilger in The War You Don’t See, screened on SBS on Sunday night. For example, when Tony Blair said the British always supported the forces of freedom and democracy in the Middle East, he was begging for ritual evisceration; the West has always supported oppressive regimes because it has suited larger strategic goals like containing the Soviet Union and ensuring access to oil.

No one is more reluctant to hand Pilger praise than I – propagandist rather than polemicist might describe him better, in my view – but this documentary may be the one credible critique he has produced. He highlighted how Western propaganda cultivates “worthy” victims, e.g. Somalians and airbrushes “unworthy” victims, e.g. the four million Iraqis rendered homeless by the 2003 invasion. He was right to describe the practice of embedding journalists in Western armies as a means of controlling reporting of a war. Journalists were rewarded with access if they lent credibility to the official narrative. And they were dissuaded from uncovering war crimes. The interviews he produced with now-apologetic journalists were precious.

All the sadder that Pilger cannot bring himself to issue a criticism of Saddam Hussein, even in passing. Or, for that matter, the religious dictatorship in Iran. These are the deeply ingrained habits of fellow-travelling. It was the same with his treatment of Hugo Chavez in his earlier documentary The War on Democracy. It’s the old story : no enemies on the Left. This is a journalist who could do with a big compulsory dose of George Orwell.

Wilfred Burchett, while embedded in North Vietnam

It is Pilger’s total absence of self-awareness that stands out. Here he is, delivering cutting criticisms of embedded journalists in the Western cause. So far so good. But he resurrects an old interview with Wilfred Burchett. This veteran he treated uncritically, not for a moment touching on the irony: Wilfred Burchett, an Australian born, Soviet-line propagandist, was embedded in the armies of North Korea and North Vietnam, and produced slobbering praise of their wartime exploits. Burchett was the most embedded journalist in 20th century history, excluding perhaps the German Nazi newsreel teams that gave us footage of the Fuhrer on the steps of the Paris Opera in June 1940.

  1. Peter Pando permalink
    April 13, 2011 6:18 am

    Dear Mr Carr,

    Are you complaining about people engaging others tell their story? Virtually any large scale enterprise has critics who can gum up the works with strategic misrepresentations, or smooth the path with praise. Politicians do it for political campaigns, businesses do it with advertising products, sports teams do it for games, religions and charities do it too. Why do you think opponents of Western democratic domestic harmony and foreign expansion compete so vigorously for positions in universities and the media, if not to gum up the works? Would the Sydney Olympics have been reported as so successful without a system of media accreditation, privileged access for the more connected journalists, and so on?

  2. Nick Shimmin permalink
    April 13, 2011 12:44 pm

    Pilger is a polemicist. What’s wrong with that, Bob? He doesn’t pretend to be otherwise, unlike News Ltd, Fairfax and the other organisations where you peddle your wares. They have an agenda as much as Pilger, but they pretend to be presenting objective facts. Your ignorance of Wilfred Burchett is fairly staggering too. I suggest you read his autobiography. What Burchett and Pilger strive to do is present the realities of war in face of a media which attempts to conceal them. Simple as that. You may not agree with their ideology, but they succeeded in doing that better than any mainstream media has ever done. Just read Burchett’s scoop about Hiroshima, and then reflect on how our media covered Fallujah.

  3. Simon Nasht permalink
    April 17, 2011 10:53 pm

    Bob, I know years in politics have made you wary of journalists – even if you were once one yourself. But your argument against Burchett is really quite unbalanced and poorly informed.

    Comparing Burchett in any way to Nazis is simply insulting given he risked his life in pre-war Berlin helping Jews escape. And while every war correspondent was without exception embedded with the Allied military in Tokyo, it was Burhcett who again risked his life travelling to Hiroshima to uncover perhaps the single biggest story of the war: the atomic devastation. Of course the US Government initially denied radiation sickness existed, and paid the reporters of the New York Times to deny it too. Who was right? And who was telling the real story about Vietnam? – the embeds reporting the nonsense of the nightly 6 o’clock Follies in Saigon with their imaginary body counts, or Burchett on the frontlines in the North? On balance, who got the Vietnam story right? No one sensibly claims that Burchett didn’t make errors, especially in the early years of the Cold War. But to ignore his tremendous, and usually unique reportage from the ‘other side’, is simply not telling the full story. And isn’t that the sin you throw at Pilger?

  4. Edward Primrose permalink
    April 25, 2011 8:19 pm

    Dear Mr. Carr,

    Denying praise is an unfortunate Australian tradition “no one is more reluctant to hand Pilger praise than I”, of a very destructive kind. With this you furnish a weak apology for the idea that one could have a belief outside or counter to the mainstream. How conventional!

    You try to diminish John Pilger’s worth with your faint praise. Pilger is a highly opinionated journalist who does the research that apparently no-one else can do. The fact that his opinions are so rarely expressed in the popular press says more about the latter than the former.
    So to criticise Pilger for NOT criticising an Iraqi tyrant is weak scholarship to say the least. Just one snippet from an ABC interview from years ago:

    TONY JONES: Do you acknowledge that huge human rights abuses, not perhaps on the same scale as Pol Pot, but quite close to it, happened under Saddam Hussein’s regime …
    JOHN PILGER: Absolutely.
    TONY JONES: But just let me finish that question. Can there not be a moral case made for deposing the dictator who was killing hundreds and thousands of his opponents?
    JOHN PILGER: Absolutely. By the Iraqi people.
    Pilger has gone to great lengths to explain his position on both Iraq and Iran, which makes your hollow criticism rather trite and irrelevant. Perhaps we need to look at your own record as a US apologist to understand you inability to accept the possibility that on foreign policy, the USA can get it very wrong and with disastrous consequences.
    As for Wilfred Burchett, we need to be thankful for Australia’s relative freedom of expression that some of his documentation was able to leak out, against all odds, to counter the still virulent lies and obfuscations concerning the South East Asian post WWII catastophy. As to the associations you make with Nazi newsreel teams, that’s just brutish, and given your self-proclaimed record in politics, unpardonable.

    • Bob Carr permalink
      April 25, 2011 8:44 pm

      Burchett was an apologist for Stalinist dictatorship, those seedy regimes in Eastern Europe and the Marxist-Leninist dictatorship of Ho Chi Minh. He was imbedded in its army and produced propaganda movies for them and did the same for the North Koreans, a savage dictatorship. You weaken your case by defending him.

      As for the US I repeatedly and publicly criticized the Anglo-American invasion of Irak including in a public debate inSydney’s concert hall where I led the case that America had lost it’s moral leadership. Publicly when I was Premier I attacked the Bush administration for Irak and climate change. I was reported doing so. One public attack produced a phone call at home from the assistant secretary of defense Rich Armitage pledging that if I were patient I would see a reversal of neo-con policy.

      Pilger’s lack of a hard edge when it comes to Leftist dictators weakens his criticism of failed Western policy.

      Did he ever do a program on Iran ? Will he ? In the mean time you should acknowledge the nuance in my criticism – or, in your view, is he absolutely not to be criticized ?

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