I was recently alerted, by my good friend Ann Alexander, to a transcript of a speech given by the legendary investigative journalist John Pilger at the “Reclaim the Media” conference, organised by NUJ activists, which took place in central London on October 26 to discuss the fallout from the phone-hacking scandal that discredited Rupert Murdoch’s media empire over the summer, and led to the demise of the News of the World.
This is timely, of course, as the phone-hacking scandal has not gone away, and, in the last few days, in advance of another appearance by James Murdoch in front of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee on Thursday, News International launched a voluntary compensation scheme for victims of phone-hacking, the day after the Metropolitan police stated that the number of possible victims of News International’s phone-hacking had reached 5,795, which was nearly 2,000 more than the police estimated in July.
In October, the Guardian noted that News International was facing more than 60 new compensation claims, and it seems unlikely, therefore, that the scandal will go away, especially as it has now emerged that, for eight years, a private detective was paid by News International to follow celebrities (including Prince William), and also to follow lawyers (those working for Milly Dowler’s family, who were followed last year and this year) and politicians (including cabinet ministers, and Tom Watson MP, who has made it his mission to expose News International’s wrongdoing).
However, Ann alerted me to the article because she was thinking about me, in a very kind manner, and picked up on a section of Pilger’s speech in which he spoke about a Ministry of Defence document released by WikiLeaks, which stated that there were “three main threats to the ministry’s view of the world” — namely, “Russian spies, terrorists, and by far the greatest threat — independent investigative journalists,” and she was thinking about my investigative work, primarily in connection with Guantánamo.
I tracked down the highlights of the speech that were published in the Socialist Worker, and also a video of the event, which I have made available below, and I thought I’d cross-post John Pilger’s speech, as it is a ringing defense of the independence that is needed from journalists in a world that is generally dominated by corporate interests.
John Pilger at “Reclaim the Media,” October 26, 2011
After Hackgate, it’s likely that Rupert Murdoch’s empire will disintegrate, certainly when the old man dies, and that’s very good news. But Hackgate was a sideshow to a rampant collusion so engrained across the mainstream media that it almost never speaks its name. The undeclared role of our “free media” is to minimize the culpability of our governments. At worst it is to cheer them on, to beat their drums, to dehumanize their enemies.
We journalists love the idea of worthy and unworthy victims. British and American soldiers are always worthy victims, no matter what they’ve done or why they’ve done it. In Libya the revolutionaries, our revolutionaries, are worthy victims. But the people in the city of Sirte were unworthy victims. They were pro-Gaddafi, we were told. So it was OK to rain down fragmentation bombs on them and hellfire missiles to suck the air out of the lungs of their children. Untold numbers of men, women and children were killed and maimed by us.
How did the BBC report it? The city, said a BBC reporter, should be left as a memorial to Gaddafi’s victims. Consider the intellectual and moral contortion required to make that statement. That Gaddafi’s crimes pale against the crimes of our government is unmentionable.
The slaughter in Fallujah in Iraq was unmentionable too. Thousands were killed. Yet almost nothing of the truth of that massacre appeared in the BBC, ITV or any of the main news.
The American human rights lawyer Richard Falk wrote that, “People in the West are encouraged to see the world through a self-righteous, one-way moral/legal screen [with] positive images of Western values and an innocence portrayed as threatened, validating a campaign of unrestricted political violence.”
I’ve been a witness to much of this violence. I’ve glimpsed the overthrow of some of the 50 governments dispatched by the United States, with British support, many of them democracies. In Latin America I’ve seen those tortured by forces approved and backed by our governments. Colonel Gaddafi had the approval and backing of the British government to torture people we didn’t like.
But we, the benevolent ones, are seldom reported as the instigators of this violence, this terrorism that is far greater than anything that Al-Qaida could produce.
Murdoch’s appearance in parliament was great theatre. But why wasn’t he asked about the invasion of Iraq? Why wasn’t he asked about phone calls he made to Tony Blair in March 2003, each followed by warmongering front pages in the Murdoch press? Murdoch’s TV channels and newspapers have supported state violence for most of my career. But Murdoch is not a bad apple.
Consider two studies of the BBC’s coverage of the run-up to the invasion of Iraq by the University of Wales and Media Tenor. They were barely reported. They found that the BBC’s coverage overwhelmingly reflected the Blair government’s propaganda, such as the lies about weapons of mass destruction. Less than 2 percent of BBC reporting in this critical period allowed dissenting voices, even though a majority of the British public opposed the invasion. That’s less than the most jingoistic American networks.
On 9 April 2003, BBC political editor Andrew Marr stood outside 10 Downing Street. He declared, “Tony Blair said that we would be able to take Baghdad without a bloodbath. He has been proved conclusively right. And it would be entirely ungracious, even for his critics, not to acknowledge that tonight he stands as a larger man and a stronger prime minister.”
Researchers at John Hopkins University estimate that more than a million people died as a result of the invasion. Their work was first reported in the Lancet in 2006 and the mainstream media sought to discredit it. Why? Because we destroyed the lives of a million people and yet have little idea of the sheer scale of this crime committed in our name.
Last year I interviewed Dan Rather, America’s most famous TV news editor. He and others believe that had journalists challenged and exposed the lies of Bush and Blair, the invasion of Iraq might not have happened. And perhaps those million people would be alive today.
My point is that the trail of blood leads not only to Murdoch, because the most important propagandists are seldom the least credible. It also leads to those who enjoy more public respect, like broadcasters.
A WikiLeaks cable from the US embassy described the extent of the understanding between the BBC and powerful politicians. This is the US ambassador advising secretary of state Hillary Clinton: “I hope you can take some time out to tape an interview with leading British journalist Andrew Marr. It would be a powerful way for you to set out our priorities for Afghanistan/Pakistan. Marr is a congenial interviewer who will offer maximum impact for your investment of time.”
Another WikiLeaks document describes a different kind of journalist. It’s a 2,000-page document from the Ministry of Defence about how to prevent leaks — which was leaked. It said there are three main threats to the ministry’s view of the world. They are Russian spies, terrorists, and by far the greatest threat — independent investigative journalists. No greater compliment can be bestowed on those who do their job independently and fearlessly.
I believe an historic shift is taking place and that social democracy is being drained of its life-force and replaced by corporatism. The convergence of the main political parties is part of this momentous change. Dissent is being criminalized on both sides of the Atlantic. And alongside it all is the mainstream media.
Reading the WikiLeaks cables, what’s clear is that the aim of great power is to eliminate the distinction between journalism and information control.
But the craft of journalism has seen the best of traditions. And these have survived, from Tom Paine right up to Robert Fisk. In other words we were never meant to be the agents of power. We were always meant to be the agents of people.