Marko Attila Hoare has written an interesting account of a recent exchange with John Pilger. Pilger was speaking at Kingston University (where Marko teaches in the history faculty) and was evidently unprepared for close questioning about his imaginative claims concerning the causes and consequences of Nato's intervention in Kosovo. Do read it; it accords with my impression of Pilger's insouciance regarding accurate reporting and his brusqueness when contradicted. (Marko also notes the singular fact that Pilger cites in his support "the Balkans writer Neil Clark". Case closed: Mr Clark is, as I have regretfully but necessarily demonstrated, an ignoramus and faker.)
Pilger's aversion to criticism was nicely captured a few years ago by David Aaronovitch in his then Independent column. "There is," said David, "a convention among newspapers, quaint but sweet, that columnists are not allowed to reply to letter-writers. No matter how traduced we may feel by the author of an angry epistle to the editor; the line is that we have had our say, and that's that." It's a useful convention. (It's also one I can reasonably claim to adhere to with some punctiliousness. The Guardian last year published not a letter but an op-ed insinuating without evidence that I favoured a nuclear first strike on Iran. Having already had my say - in a piece that wasn't about, and didn't mention, Iran - I didn't consider demanding a right of reply to so pitiful and deranged a falsehood.) That convention - and it is, of course, no more than that - was not observed by Pilger, who had lately written to The New Statesman to condemn the magazine's "mean, ignorant and lazy non-journalism" (by Johann Hari) about him. The NS is a magazine to which Pilger was, and remains, a contributor.
My only personal experience of an exchange with Pilger took a similar form. In its first years, The Independent ran a feature called "Heroes and Villains" in its Saturday magazine. A writer or public figure would write 1,000 words on a personality who fitted one of those categories. Pilger contributed a column in (I think) 1990 in which he expounded the merits of his personal hero Noam Chomsky. This saccharine piece dealt in a predictable way with the two principal episodes of controversy in Chomsky's political writings. These were Chomsky's defence of the political legitimacy (not merely the right of free speech) of the Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson, and his dismissal of the atrocity accounts of refugees fleeing Cambodia in the late 1970s. Pilger made no mention of these issues, so I wrote a letter to the magazine making good the omissions. Three weeks later the magazine published a response from Pilger in which, sure enough, he referred to my observations as "scurrilous", and declared theatrically that for exposing official deceit and telling truths "Chomsky must bear the burden of the Kamms". And I was just a letter-writer to The Independent.
Much more recently I wrote a short column summarising Pilger's life's work:
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.
A reader of Harry's Place, which last week was discusing Pilger too, has pointed out that The Truth Game can be seen on the Web here. I watched it yesterday, having not seen it since its original broadcast. I fear I understated when I said it was stuffed with errors. The contemporary critics whom I referred to were Lawrence Freedman, then as now Professor of War Studies at King's College, London, and the journalist William Shawcross. Their evisceration of Pilger's film was published in New Society (long since merged with The New Statesman) for 24 March 1983, under the title "Games with the Truth". Pilger's errors and distortions were various and numerous; I cite from Freedman and Shawcross's critique only three.
1. Pilger stated: "On 7 August 1945, President Truman announced the atomic bombing of Hiroshima with these words. ' The experiment,' he said, 'has been an overwhelming success.'"
Freedman and Shawcross comment: "Truman's announcement of the destruction of Hiroshima was released on 6 August 1945. It does not contain the words Pilger cites."
2. Pilger stated: "In 1979 a secret committee of NATO decided to base 572 cruise and Pershing missiles in Europe.... The unofficial truth is that the cruise was designed for a nuclear war in Europe and will be controlled by the US."
Freedman and Shawcross comment: "The NATO commitee was not secret. The decision was taken by the NATO Council on 12 December 1979 in a blaze of publicity.... The very fact that cruise and Pershing are US weapons targeted against the Soviet Union means that if they were used they would ensure that nuclear war was not limited to Europe. One of us, Lawrence Freedman, stressed the role of European governments in encouraging the US to deploy the missiles for that purpose, when Pilger interviewed for The Truth Game (but this was not used in the film)."
3. Pilger said that a British Army manual for 1960, which discussed the use of nuclear weapons, showed that "the planning for a limited nuclear war in Europe began at least 22 years ago. But hadn't we been led to believe that nuclear war as a practical military option is only a recent development?"
Freedman and Shawcross comment: "No, we had not been led to believe that! This reinforces our point that the idea of 'limited nuclear war' is not new, as Pilger claims in The Truth Game. Tactical nuclear weapons have been around since the fifties."
Pilger replied in the magazine two weeks later. He began disastrously, by saying: "I would like to thank the many people who have written and phoned offering me studies and sources...." Freedman and Shawcross then went through Pilger's new series of errors. They concluded: "Our concern is not, as Pilger seems to think, to obscure his thesis by "smearing" it, but to point out that it has no factual basis. Perhaps we are being mundane, but we simply think that those engaging in the nuclear debate, on either side, should show respect for the evidence and for the audience. Pilger has not done so. We are pleased that his friends have sent him 'studies and sources'; we hope he now uses them."
Freedman and Shawcross made no exaggeration in their refutation of Pilger. So far as I can tell, Pilger's quotation - which are his opening words in the film - about "the experiment" of the Hiroshima bombing is not only absent from President Truman's announcement of 6 August 1945 but is a fabrication. It appears to be merely an adaptation of a notion widespread among Truman-bashers prone to conspiracy theory. For example, Kate Hudson, CND's chairman, has written in her book CND: Now More than Ever, 2005, p. 23: "Given that it was absolutely unnecessary to drop the [Hiroshima and Nagasaki] bombs to end the war, it seems likely that this macabre experiment was another factor in the US decision to bomb, and to bomb twice." The first two words of that sentence are characteristic of Ms Hudson's technique of advancing unsupported and ahistorical assumptions to reach a prefabricated conclusion. It is ironic, to put it no higher, that a film portentously called The Truth Game should operate still less scrupulously.
John Pilger recently declared: "That great whistleblower Tom Paine warned that if the majority of the people were denied the truth and the ideas of truth, it was time to storm what he called the Bastille of words. That time is now." And on that point, it would be churlish to disagree.