Reflections with John Pilger: “Journalism was an enormous privilege”

By Helena Williams

Veteran investigative journalist John Pilger cannot explain what has driven him to travel the world and cover some of its most important stories for the past half century. From being the youngest journalist to be named Journalist of the Year – and winning the award twice – to witnessing numerous conflicts – Pilger’s reputation precedes him.

“I can’t start to analyse why I do it. I’ve always felt that being a journalist was an enormous privilege, being allowed to go into people’s lives, gaining their trust, finding out what the hell is going on – I pursued that as a journalist.”

“Labels have been stuck on me but I never put one on myself. I tried to give you a glimpse of that in my own development tonight.”

In conversation with journalist and writer Charles Glass, Pilger explained to the audience the ins and outs of his extraordinary career.

He left his birthplace in Sydney, Australia, in the 1960s and joined Reuters, later moving to the London Daily Mirror – then Britain’s biggest selling newspaper.

From then he pursued his one goal in life, “a pretty simple ambition at that point – I wanted to be a journalist and travel the world.”

His critical reporting from an often appraised neutral eye is a characteristic that has won Pilger his reputation for excellence. On covering his first conflict, Vietnam, he said: “I didn’t go there thinking this was a wrong war. I just knew very little about it.”

“But starting to understand how Vietnam happened changed me very quickly. When I went to the MeKong delta and saw villages hit by Napalm, all kinds of questions arose for me. [Martha] Gelhorn was the first to identify this was a war against civilians, which is a precursor to wars now, and a precursor to how I would approach a war now.”

He described a number of anecdotes which defined his career through a series of past video clips. They covered Cambodia, East Timor and Myanmar’s tragedies and struggles; Aung San Suu Kyi’s detention, the American invasion of Iraq and the rise of Wikileaks, to name a few.

He But he also looked to the present state of the media – blasting the Leveson inquiry as “extraordinary waffle shop.”

“Leveson has not even mentioned that the media’s greatest and most disreputable role has been in the promotion of wars that has cost a vast number of lives and devastation of countries,” he explained.

“Most media is an extension of established order and power, with the occasional honourable exception.”

“Journalism students should be taught to be sceptical of their employers, sceptical of their governments. Governments are still portrayed as benign if they’re ours, and if they’re other’s, they’re not.”

“Media is an extension of power but when we recognise that we become aware of official drivel and understand that the truth is subversive. It always is.”