John Pilger, world-renowned journalist, visited the University of Lincoln earlier this month to receive an Honorary Doctorate of Arts. The Linc exclusively interviewed Mr. Pilger to find out his views on the Ruso-Georgian conflict, the future of American politics, censorship, propaganda and the evolution of the University of Lincoln.
Daniel Ionescu: How does it feel coming back to the University of Lincoln and how do you think the university changed since you opened the Journalism school in 2004?
John Pilger: Lincoln’s approach to journalism is among the best and most imaginative I know. You have only to listen to the enthusiasm of journalism students at the university. Their attitude seems quite different from that of the more ‘corporate’ colleges. It was a real pleasure to attend their graduation. The work of Richard Keeble and John Tulloch is outstanding; they have been pioneers.
DI: You are regarded as one of the greatest investigative and campaigning journalists of your generation. How will the Honorary Doctorate of Arts from the University of Lincoln will be appreciated in your vast awards and honors portfolio?
JP: Well, it’s already in pride of place on the wall of my office!
DI: What’s your opinion on the situation in Georgia? Is Russia trying to provoke the western world?
JP: Like much of the news, the reality and the ‘why’ are hidden. Russia is responding to the provocative actions of its former superpower rival, the United States, which is using NATO to ring the Russian heartland and hinterland with missiles. Within days of the Georgia crisis, Condoleezza Rice was signing a treaty with the government in Warsaw to base American missiles in Poland, on Russia’s western border – a border that has seen invasions with horrific consequences. The missiles are said to be aimed at Iran, but they are also aimed at Moscow and China. Go back to 1962 when the Americans objected to the basing of Soviet missiles in Cuba – a nuclear war almost erupted then. American missiles in Russia’s ‘sphere of influence’ are demonstrably a provocation, and what happened in Georgia, effectively an American colony, was predictable.
DI: You once said that “America has been constantly waging war against much of humanity”. Will Obama or McCain in the White House really make a difference?
JP: There will be differences in emphasis, but they are both representatives of a system, and the system rules. What is striking about Obama and McCain is how much they openly agree. Both are offering ‘renewed military leadership’, as Obama said. They are products of a militarised system that spends 42 cents in every tax dollar on war and the planning for war. George W Bush may be on the way out, but his neo-conservatives have bequeathed an elite consensus from which no new administration will depart, in essence.
DI: In 2006 you said that “For me, (…) the most virulent and powerful form of censorship, fueling an indoctrination that runs deep in western societies, deeper than many journalists themselves understand or will admit to.” How do you think people can avoid being manipulated by the media?
JP: I think a great many people already understand the insidious power of the modern media. That’s why the media itself has become an issue. Journalists can be defensive about this – the notion that the public may be ahead of them is difficult to assimilate with a self-serving propaganda that the public is stupid or apathetic.
DI: Out of all the films and documentaries you made during your career, which one do you feel most strongly about and why?
JP: I can’t single out one. I have felt strongly about them all!
DI: Do you feel that you achieved most of your goals in your career? What are your plans for the future?
JP: No, I haven’t achieved my goals, because my goals are simply to keep on writing and making films. I have a new film under discussion, about war and media, and I may try my hand at fiction.
DI: Do you have any tips for students on how to achieve the most in their careers?
JP: Well, as I said in my acceptance speech: maintain your idealism, maintain your audacity and, above all, maintain your independence of mind.
John Pilger’s acceptance speech at the graduation ceremony on September 10th at Lincoln Cathedral
We are living through dangerous times. Britain is part of what is called “the war on terror”, which means that our government, in reality, is waging a war of terror in at least two countries, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The ancient land that is now Iraq is the cradle of much of what we call civilisation: of writing and books and learning. How many of us are aware that since the first Gulf War in 1991, more innocent people have died in that country as a consequence of the actions of our government and its principal ally than died during the nightmare of slavery.
I believe that only by understanding the crimes committed in our name can we progress as a civilisation. How do we that? With information – truthful information found and delivered without fear or favour. For that is the essence of the power of people and of true democracy.
There is every indication that in these dangerous times, liberal democracy is moving toward a form of corporate autocracy, in which we the people are becoming accountable to the government, not the other way round, as it should be.
This is a historic shift, and the media ought not to be its façade. Had journalists and broadcasters done their job in the years since 1991, had we questioned and exposed the lies of our governments instead of amplifying and echoing them, perhaps a million or more innocent people would be alive today.
I believe we need a public movement that monitors, deconstructs and counters propaganda that comes in the form of news. In every university, in every media college, in every news room, teachers of journalism – and journalists themselves – need to question the part they play in the distortion and omission of information that allows great power to have its bloody way.
Such a movement could herald a perestroika, a liberation of a kind we have not known – as the Internet has already demonstrated. In other words, it is time to reclaim what Tom Paine called “the freedom of words and ideas of truth”.
More info on Jonh Pilger on his website.