This article appears in The Times today.
THIS WEEK the Barbican Centre in London is staging a John Pilger Film Festival. To one admirer, Pilger is “a lone campaigning voice in a rising tide of current affairs dross”. Even some commentators more wary of Pilger’s politics declare admiration for his impassioned film-making. Yet Pilger’s documentaries are full of falsehoods. They operate by misdirection, simultaneously denouncing one form of injustice while ignoring or denying others.
Pilger gained prominence in Indochina in the 1970s. According to one contemporary who knew him there, Pilger was a courageous polemicist rather than a reporter. He saw what he wished to see and ignored the rest. Pilger’s documentaries about Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge inspired humanitarian fundraising, yet failed to disclose that Communist Vietnam, having invaded Cambodia and installed a puppet regime, was trying to control which starving people were fed and which were not.
Such omissions go beyond partisanship. In asserting what the evidence will not support, Pilger displays little research and culpable incompetence. In a 1982 exposure of slavery in Thailand he “bought” a young girl, only to find he had been duped. A 1990 documentary alleging that SAS members had trained the Khmer Rouge resulted in a libel writ that Central Television settled at substantial cost. Pilger’s 1983 film The Truth Game, alleging systematic mendacity by Western governments over nuclear weapons, was revealed by two authorities to be stuffed with errors. Pilger’s plaintive response that lots of viewers had sent him supportive letters illustrated a stark incomprehension of how historical claims are properly evaluated.
Pilger’s 1994 film Death of a Nation condemned Western complicity in the oppression of East Timor by Indonesia. Yet Osama bin Laden declares the now independent Timor “part of the Islamic world” and rightly Indonesia’s. By his own perverse logic, Pilger — who indecently asserted that “the bombs of July 7 were Blair’s bombs”, on account of the Iraq war — ought to admit responsibility for provoking Islamist terror.
That is not a superficial debating point. Pilger explicitly supports the insurgency in Iraq and describes coalition troops as “legitimate targets”. By reputation the exemplar of radical conscience, Pilger turns out to be the voice of brutishness.