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