John Pilger in Sheffield: Propaganda, Media, and War

This October, Sheffield Theatres played host to prolific journalist and documentary filmmaker, John Pilger, as part of the Off the Shelf Festival. In a career spanning nearly 60 years, Pilger has become one of the world’s best-known investigative journalists and war reporters, with Salman Rushdie once saying of him: “He is a photographer using words instead of a camera.”

Throughout this time, he has frequently exposed injustices around the globe, revealing the shifting morale of the American troops during the Vietnam War, shedding light on the treatment of Australia’s indigenous peoples by the state, and becoming a vocal critic of British and US foreign policy following 9/11.

Now, his book The New Rulers of the World, originally published in 2002, has been updated for 2016. In it, Pilger focuses his keen investigative mind on what he sees as the insidious use of propaganda in the media, which surreptitiously shapes the way we see the world today.

Quoting Edward Bernays, who’s often described as the man who invented modern propaganda, Pilger said:

“The secret [to propaganda] is engineering the consent of people, in order to control and regiment them according to the will of those in power, without their knowing about it. This is the true ruling power of our society, and it’s known as an invisible government.”

Today, Pilger argues, the invisible government “has never been more powerful and less understood,” and it’s this distortion of reality by those in power that he’s particularly concerned about. Calling the 2003 invasion of Iraq “an enterprise launched on lies and propaganda dressed up as news,” he argues forcefully that during the run-up to the invasion, the journalists in mainstream news publications and broadcast houses didn’t do their jobs properly.

“If journalists had done their jobs, had they challenged and investigated the propaganda [of government] instead of amplifying it, hundreds and thousands of men, women and children might well be alive today.

“There would be no ISIS and no siege of Aleppo, and no siege of Mosul. By challenging the government’s incorrect intelligence, we might never have gone to war at all.”

This forthright, no-holds-barred statement is shocking, but it’s also typical of a man who’s spent his entire adult life digging deeper to get to the truth, and championing the average person over those who hold the power.

What becomes clear during his talk, is that Pilger’s sixth sense for deconstructing a narrative and scrutinising the people in government, has left him with a deep, and not altogether unjustified, distrust of the mainstream media.

“The trouble is that six major corporations now control the biggest media in the world. The mainstream media as it is, is an extension of our political system, and I really don’t see how it can be reformed.

“George W. Bush’s press spokesman once called the media ‘complicit enablers’. Coming from a senior official in an administration whose lies, enabled by the media, caused such suffering, that description is a warning from history.”

This might seem like a distressingly negative view for a journalist to take, but he also says that the solution to this incessant propaganda lies in us as people, alongside independent publications and journalists.

“I think we have to look for our own avenues of information, look to our own sources. If we really want to know what’s going on we’ve got to take the time to do that, and we have this amazing tool: the internet.

“The government isn’t governing. It represents a small, narrow interest. But then it’s down to us to do something about it, isn’t it? There’s too much silence [when we talk about issues today].”

Coming from a man who’s spent his entire life drawing attention to injustice and challenging governments around the world, this statement should be a wake-up call to ordinary people everywhere.

Listening to Pilger talk, it’s clear that although he feels mainstream media is untrustworthy, he still trusts deeply in independent journalism, and the power of an educated, active public who are willing to inform themselves and take action. The trouble is, this seems to be the kind of activism that’s slowly lost its way in the 21st century.

“Where are all our people on the streets?” He asks. “Where are they? February 2003 represented the largest protest ever in human history [against the Iraq War], and what has happened since? That’s really the question no-one has asked, and I think it’s the question only you can answer.”

Perhaps if we could answer that question and agree to take action to change it, the world would look very different in the years to come.

You can find John Pilger’s books, journalism, and documentaries here.

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