Home > coverstory > John Pilger discussing his book Hidden Agendas

John Pilger
Journalist John Pilger has written several books now, including Heroes, A Secret Country and Distant Voices. Shortly there will be a television documentary shown on ABC in June “Apartheid Did Not Die” . Apartheid did not die is about just that; continuing discrimination and suffering of Black South Africans, despite the official change of regime and this is also the subject of his last chapter in his new book “Hidden Agendas”. Hidden Agendas looks at the down trodden forgotten people of the world, the “unpeople” as he calls them. Pilger has travelled to and written about East Timor, Burma, Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia and the effect of Britain under Tony Blair and looks at the battle of the docks on Liverpool.
The Sydney Morning Herald’s review of Hidden Agendas, James Dunn writes -“For those of us who are dismayed by Australia’s move to the right, John Pilger’s Hidden Agendas could not have come out at a better time. It reminds us of the kind of political society we aspire to be and the way we really are”

It’s good to be home. I began as 17yr old copy boy at the Sydney Morning Herald in Broadway…My first assignment was to listen to police radio at night, alert if any news. Fell asleep on second night of the job. Lou Delpugeigh “big blue” (He wore blue suede shoes, and I later saw these at close range). I later worked at the Daily Telegraph as a first year cadet. My first real report was of a swarm of bees in shopping centre in Hurstville.
My first real assingment as cadet reporter on Telegraph was reporting the extraordinary spectacle first migrant ship arriving in Australia in the 1950’s. Hope, optimism, sweat and tears which changed Australia into one of one the most diverse societies in the world, were all there on the wharves as the migrant ships came in. And every time I come back I’m excited by the richness of the diversity of Australia, by the openness in the possibilities , but I also find myself lamenting at my own class of journalism. That in my own class of journalism the same diversity and openness is missing as is history has passed journalism by. And it’s this missing link I’d like to talk about today.

In 1851 there were more than 50 independent newspapers in NSW alone. Within 20 years the number of newspapers had risen to 143 – all of them independent and most of them anti-establishment. Newspapers were by definition I quote, “the voice of the people not the voice of the authorities.” Today this ‘medley of competing voices’ has been reduced to sixteen principle newspapers – ten of them owned by one man, Rupert Murdoch. Now the numbers get quite extraordinary: Of twelve daily newspapers in the capital cities, Murdoch controls seven. Of ten Sunday Newspapers, Murdoch has seven. In Adelaide, Murdoch has a complete monopoly. In Brian he controls all but some suburban papers. These facts are to me quite shocking. In other words of all the daily papers published in Australia’s capital cities where the great majority of people live, two out of every three copies sold are the property of one powerful individual. Unelected, unaccountable – the man who demonstrated his faith in Australia by selling his nationality for commercial gains.
And the only comparable competitor is Kerry Packer who owns most of the magazines Australians read and the dominant commercial TV network. Almost uniquely in Australia, the politicians have connived in this discression. In what can only be described as a mandate, Keating and Bob Hawke set out to destroy the FairFax organisation and almost succeeded. More recently John Howard tried to steer Fairfax into the arms of Kerry Packer and only backed off after a parliamentary revolt. Meanwhile the national broadcaster, the ABC, is being punished with a massive cut in it funding. So what’s the fuss you may ask, someone’s got to own the media.
Well I think we are in danger of forgetting that the press, the media, play an absolutely vital part of a free society. For the history of the struggle for democracy and the struggle for a free press are entwined. When one falters, the other falters. In the light of the low regard the public have for journalists these days, and how rightly cynical they are about the motives of the Murdoch’s and the Packers’, I was struck by how dangerously close we are to loosing something basic and precious without even knowing we’ve lost it.
The German press baron , Alfred Guttenberg was a man who controlled, and influenced, powerful German press in the 1920’s. His politics were probably about the same as Murdoch’s and Packers’. By backing what they deemed acceptable and leaving out what they deemed unacceptable, Guttenberg’s newspapers helped to block the spread of democratic ideas and democratic alternatives in Germany, thereby helping to weaken the Weimar Republic, and to pave the way for the Nazi’s. Now I’m not suggesting for a moment that Australia faces that immediate prospect. The extremism has other local faces here these days. But like any other restrictive press ownership of any democracy, Australia has become a kind of perverse model for the world. I tend to agree with David Bowman who was editor of chief of the SMH when he writes: “If you look at things historically you can say that we are now facing the second great battle of the freedom of the press.”
It doesn’t seem like a battle does it? After all with the extraordinary communications we’re bombarded by news, current affairs, talk back radio. Technology has made much of this possible. Its also created a grand illusion that we live in an information society – when the truth is we live in a media society in which there may appear to be saturation information, but in reality it’s repetitive , controlled and above all, safe.

I’m reminded of a story of a group of Russians touring the United States before the collapse of the Soviet Union. They were astonished to find after reading the newspapers and watching the TV that all the things were virtually the same. Bit of shading here and there, but generally speaking, the same. “In our country” they said, “to get that result we have a dictatorship. We imprison people, we tear out their fingernails – here you have none of that, how do you do it? What’s the secret?”
Well they could have been talking about Australia. And the secret of course is that the most powerful form of censorship is indirect and insidious. No imprisonment is required, no loss of fingernails called for. For us, diversity of ownership, the conformity of information and opinion is implicit, ingrained expected. These offered, the all powerful proprietor would even celebrate – not directly of course but everyone knows what it is and there is plenty of suplicants reminding us of the message. And the message is quite simply that there is only one way that society will develop now. And this one dimensional order requires only one kind of news and information. I call this ‘newsac’ News converted to entertainment; news produced sound bites of less then ten seconds (that’s the average length of sound bites in the United States these days) and news presented like a Coca Cola commercial. After all this is what the public wants, goes the mantra. And if they don’t know what’s missing, they won’t want it will they? This myth creates a self perpetuating cycle : the readers allegedly don’t want to know and the journalists don’t want to report it. In fact, it’s part of an old struggle. The struggle of people against power, is the struggle of memory against forgetting.

At the height of the fighting during the first World War, the British Prime Minister Lloyd George told CP Scott and the editor of the Manchester Guardian: “You know, if people really knew what was going on the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know and they can’t.”

Feeding the public what others say they want, and denying them what they don’t know is the most effective form of censorship ever devised. The Soviet citizen Uri Exdechenko put it this way : “The truth be said is replaced by silence and the silence, a lie.”
Helping to break this silence is the aim of my book. Let me hasten to say there is no grand conspiracy. Conspiracy is simply unethical. Let me try to explain : As ownership of the media has concentrated, and consumerism has become almost a cult , the fair faired autonomy and democratic capacity of journalism has been emasculated. This has happened with the complicity of a political establishment to achieve great benefits in a depoliticised society and passive entertain readers and viewers. Today at the corporate news tycoons, the pressure among journalists to conform is overwhelming, indeed internalised self censorship is now the primary threat of free speech in the media. We journalists don’t peruse certain stories and certain lines of inquiry because we know that is not expected of us. We don’t refer certain sources of information because we know they are not acceptable. For safety’s sake we tend to follow each other. This uniformity is known as the mainstream.
Britain has what appears as one of the most comprehensive news gathering industries in the world. The BBC is known for its current affairs and its documentaries . So the BBC has never been under greater pressure to compete with Murdoch and the Ted Turners’. A few months ago a wide ranging survey found that less than three percent of evening peak time television viewing in Britain had anything to do with the rest of humanity. Next time you open a newspaper, turn on the TV or the radio, consider the news you don’t hear , the view of the world you are not offered.
Let’s take some examples:
For almost eight years there have been United Nations sanctions imposed upon Iraq. In fact, they are really American and British sanctions designed partly to prevent cheap Iraqi oil from undercutting the price of Saudi oil, which both the British and American have huge investments mostly in weaponry. It was only last February when it seemed that United States were about to bomb Iraq again, but most people found out that the American and British government had been denying the Iraqi’s the most basic needs of survival and as a direct result of their policies 1, 211,285 children had died from embargo related causes. That figure comes from the Iraqi health ministry and has been verified by UNICEF. It’s more than double the World Health Organisations’ estimate of half a million children. For eight years the fate of these children was a long story in the Western media. There were hounorable exceptions, of course. Chris McGillian wrote several valuable pieces in the Sydney Morning Herald, but mostly there was silence. Then last February, public opinion stirred and people began asking questions. Why were these children from want of basic hospital equipment? Why weren’t medicines from the embargo lifted? Once the plight of the children was in the public arena, public opinion mobilised and helped to avert the latest attack on Iraq.
Let’s take another related example. If you ask people in the street to recall the 1991 Gulf War, what would their response be I wonder? I think they’d mention the hi tech weapons performing on television. If you asked how many people had died in that war, what would they say? I proport they’d reply ” not many, but a few”. It was after all, a clean scientific war, certainly that’s how the media presented it. I think that most people would be shocked to learn that up to 250 000 people were killed through what was an assault on war. And that most of those quarter or a million dead were Kerdish people who were opposed to Saddam Hussein. In other words most of the victims were the very people the West had called upon to rise up against Hussein.
No other war was so covered by the media and yet almost everyone missed the story. Less than seven percent of the weapons used were hi tech, most were old fashioned bombs that missed their target. The famous video pictures of American missiles blowing up Iraqi missile sites were fake. Not a single scud launching site was destroyed. Millions of people dependent on Western satellite television were lied to, or the truth was simply left out. In other words the more people watched television, the less they knew.

Normalising the unthinkable is a concept which Edward Herman described in an essay titled: ‘The Banality of Evil’. I recommend it to those wishing to understand the meaning of society controlled by a few powerful individuals. This is what Hetman’s wrote:
“Doing terrible things in an organised and diplomatic way rests on normalisation. There is usually a division of labour in doing and rationalising the unthinkable with a direct with rising in killing done by one set of groups, and others working on improving technology, such as new weapons. But is the function of the main stream media to normalise the unthinkable for the general public.”

This applies not just to the reporting of war, of course. Take Australia’s present economic difficulties. With the full waterfront at battle ground and the true unemployment figure at around fifteen percent, much of the blame for this can be layed at the door of the gold diggers of the nineteen eighties. Those who made fortunes and ran up huge debts when Prime Minister Hawke and Treasurer Keating deregulated the economy and floated development. Did the financial journalists warn the public that something was going badly wrong? No. Instead they elevated so called economic rationalism to the status of a supercult who surpassed from human logic, and had got the approval. Paul Keating was called the Van Gough of Treasury. Alan Bond and Christopher Skase and the other corporate crooks were hailed as the creators of genuine wealth and celebrated like pop stars. Then of course the flattery was returned – Paul Keating maintained a call for financial journalists who could begin their column “as I was saying with Paul over lunch”. Those who interrupted the mantra were often vilified and shunned. In my knowledge only one consistent consenting voice was given was given space in the metropolitan press in the nineteen eighties. This was Hugh Stretton and he was an academic, not a journalist. The financial journalists became the fundamentalists of a new cult of globalisation, and their influence on the rest of journalism has been profound. Not only did they dress up ideology to look like economic necessity , they failed in the most basic journalistic function – to warn people they were being conned. At one stage Alan Bond’s companies had debts that accounted for ten percent of the Australian national debt. And with a few honourable exceptions , like Colleen Ryan of the Herald, the financial journalists kept their silence. Today we live with that legacy in the media’s obsession with promoting businessmen, any kind of business men, journalists have helped to create an atmosphere in which a rapacious company like Patrick Stevedores can get on with its asset stripping and other nineteen century practices.

When did you last read of the same critique of the sheer mediocrity and incompetence of so many at the top in big business? When did you read or hear about companies that are run not for shareholding but for senior management and their purse? With all the recent excitement about an Australian republic and the Consitutional Convention, isn’t it also time that we ask why there hasn’t been any real debate about real problems. Economic problems. The Queen of England hasn’t a fraction of the power of Murdoch or Packer. It seems to me that the great unmentionable in the republican debate is that the political system of this country is fundamentally undemocratic because the really big decision affecting people of every day lives are not made by a lesser body or an official , they are made in corporate board rooms by powerful individuals elected by nobody.

Ken Davidson of The Age has been a lone voice on this subject, daring to interrupt the euphoric march towards a republic. Recently he pointed out that Malcolm Turnball who believes the monarchy is doesn’t account for Australian sovereignty, was one of the leading lights in the push to get Fairfax papers into the hands of British media baron, Conrad Black. And that Nick Greiner who objected to the Union Jack being on the Australian flag is a director of the British water utility North West Water. A rapacious multi national criticised in the UK for its flouting of basic regulations. Unlike the Queen who can only act on the advice of her greater Ministers , the directors of foreign companies on Australian policies can pretty well do what they like. While promoting Paul Keating’s republicanism the media generally ignored the fact Keating’s government was transferring the nation’s economic sovereignty to foreigners. Today Australia is the most foreign owned country in the world next to Canada.

Of course one of the difficulties in reporting events today is language. Something has gone wrong with it. The words don’t mean what they say anymore, it’s as if basic political ideas have been emptied of their meaning. For example politicians intent on destroying many of the gains of a civilised society and creating inequality are called reformers. And modernisers. Even revolutionaries. This reversal of popular political language has confused many making it vulnerable to claim that left and right have lost their significance, that ideology doesn’t matter anymore. If at last this is true, for example, a deeply conservative leader like Tony Blair to claim that ideology is a thing of the past

The propaganda of globalisation is the same by corruption. Take the term “free market”. In the global economy there is nothing free about the market. In the United States the most zealous exponents of this free market the aerospace and arms companies are more heavily subsidised then socialist plans would ever dare. So are their wheat farms. Three American companies control the world trade and food grain because they are subsidised by the American factories. Most of so called free trade actually takes place as transactions within multi national corporations. The truth is there is no free market. There is a system rigged by the powerful – the United States, Japan and Europe which operate behind the kind of protective barriers that they deny the rest of the world. In other words we have socialism for the rest and cut throat capitalism for the poor
You know we journalists often throw our arms in the air in despair and say we can’t change the system so dominated by powerful players. I believe we can. We can begin by reclaiming the language, by bringing back real meaning. By not presenting cliches and platitudes bloated by powerful interest. I believe it’s up to us, the journalist to challenge all the assumptions that lie behind the words to which we give common currency. Remember the words over the gates of Auschwitz : Work makes you free. Certainly by allowing censorship by emission and censorship by force we’re in danger of handing journalism over new and growing breed – the Spin Doctors. Really need to be called agenda victims. Not that many romantic notion of the free press for which visionaries and dreamists fought, there’s only one interest : the spread of propaganda on behalf of the powerful interest who pay. According to Max Clifford the famous London PR (Public Relations)man who filled the tabloids with ready made scandals, and I quote : “PR is filling the role investigative reporters should fill but no longer can because cost cutting has hit journalism heavily.” Unquote.

In Britain there are twenty five thousand PR men and women compared with 50 000 journalists. That must mean 50 000 journalists and twenty five thousand ex journalists. It’s estimated that the amount of material generated by PR in the British media that is law propaganda is more than 50% of all newspapers, tabloids and broadsheets. Indeed so. And so who’s a highly successful PR man in London representing many powerful vested interests estimates that 80% of business news is now generated by PR. Music and fashion journalists and PRs work hand in hand in the editorial process . Mostly journalists and the PR’s of car manufacturers have a similar relationship. where does PR and journalism begin and end?
Take the issue of the environment in Washington. There are now more lobbyists more so called public affairs consultants and journalists employed by companies then there are federal employees. At present this army of propaganda is helping to undermine some of the great environmental advances of the past twenty years; the dangers of ozone depletion, greenhouse warming, industrial pollution . By distorting the public perception they’re campaigning for laws that ensure that regulation becomes too expensive and too difficult to implement. The same is happening in this country as the Howard Government prepares to roll back the environmental advances discovered during the Whitlam years.

I sometimes see young journalists affecting a cynicism that they believe ordains them as real journalists. It’s a cynicism about people – when their top of professional scepticism that should be aimed at power, not people. The public are far from apathetic. They don’t suffer from compassion…there is no need to cater for what they used to call on Murdoch’s London Sun the ‘lowest common denominator’, especially when in the Sun’s case the lowest common denominator was sitting in the editors chair.
Every serious survey showed that people want their Sun and their escapism. But they also want journalists to make sense of the news. So what if the public appears not to give a damn I hear you say, well quote David Bowman again : “A good journalist never takes refuge and cynicism, but persuades the readers to give a damn”. We should be turning the telescope around looking through the end marked people, not authority. The great muckraker Cord Cogin once wrote: ” Never believe anything until it’s officially denied.” I believe that if we saw the world from this way round we would begin to abandon stereotypes and discover our public sensitivity we sometimes hardly know exists.

I was recently interviewed by the SMH in London essentially about my book. The journalist arrived at my home armed with a beloved stereotype straight out of cuttings file. Alas he became terribly confused when he met me, and in peak at least reflected the clash of the prejudice with the person he met. Had he read the book he was supposed to write about, he would have found it’s as much a celebration on good journalists especially those who risk their lives in countries like Indonesia, Nigeria, Turkey as it is a tribute to the achievements of ordinary people against the odds.
“John Pilger seems himself as a champion for the underdog in a bad, bad world. But beneath all his gloom and doom , there is an optimist struggling to get out”
Here I am looking all gloomy and doomed. Above the headline which says: ‘Incurable Crusader’. Well I’m not an incurable crusader, I’m an incurable journalist. And I have been one since I started as the daily messenger in my second year at Sydney Herald. I believe journalism is a privilege. It allows us to enter people lives and to gain their trust and it entrusts us to be honest.

In his great book the Republic of Conscience, Seamus Heaney wrote about the jewel citizen who should speak on behalf of others . That is what a incurable journalist ought to be. An incurable journalist should challenge stereotypes, look behind facades and to be completely independent of all their sources. That means seeing the world from the ground up. By rediscovering this view of ourselves we might even discover our private things. And the public might even appreciate us a bit more then now. For a start, we should take particular pride in the knowledge that the powerful men we work for can’t stand the sight of us . In Kerry Packer’s biography, Paul Barry wrote – “there’s some aspect that Packer is a media baron is that he hates journalists”. Rupert Murdoch’s contempt of journalism is well known, and Conrad Black’s regard for us scribes “Journalists”, wrote Black, “are a very degenerative group. They drink too much and their mental stability is open to question. They are ignorant, lazy and inadequately supervised. As for the celebrity journalist, well he depends on staggering and depraved gossip and pawning of unfulfilled rumours” End quote. To be fair he was referring there to Canadian journalists. But he did name names, and I confess with pride that mine was one of them.

 

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