The idea that the media, and television in particular, is just one giant propaganda machine is widespread.
Which is why anything by those journalists who do uncover the grotesque realities behind the lies and distortions is always welcome.
A chance to see 12 of John Pilger’s classic television documentaries has been provided with the release of a set of four DVDs, John Pilger – In The Name Of Justice. Although not as immediate as his more recent work, they each reveal ugly portraits that our rulers would prefer to remain hidden.
One in particular, The Truth Game, does have a terrible relevance today. Made in 1983, it uncovers the government lies surrounding the build up of nuclear weapons.
It follows the classic Pilger format. First present a lie – that the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima in 1945 was a military necessity, that the Russians have “massive nuclear capacity”, that US cruise missiles are “an insurance policy for the West” – and then demolish it.
Gripping interviews, devastating facts, followed by shamefaced justifications from those supposedly in control, are all part of the powerful mix.
Two other classics in the set are about Vietnam, the country that Pilger covered for around 10 years. In one, made in 1978, he revisited the country three years after the US was finally booted out, to see how the Vietnamese were recovering from the devastation their country had suffered.
In Vietnam: The Last Battle, made on the 20th anniversary of the US defeat, Pilger presents a brief, bitter history of the war and the dreadful weapons the Americans deployed. He relentlessly attacks the claim – then being broadcast by the US administration – that the war had been a “noble cause”.
Three documentaries uncover scandals, lies and corruption in Pilger’s homeland, Australia, with one focusing on the history of successive governments “sending people off to fight other people’s wars”, and another delving into its immigration policies.
Pilger’s massive body of work shows that, despite their in-built bias towards the establishment, the mainstream media can sometimes be forced to broadcast programmes that challenge ruling class propaganda.
Opportunities to air alternative viewpoints have to be fought for, however.
This is an important point. Alternative media sources are important operations, but the mainstream media is still the place where most people get their news and information, and must therefore remain the arena within which media workers who want to follow in Pilger’s footsteps must fight for space.
Of course, it’s important to see how journalists like Pilger won their credentials during a brief period when independent television channels tried to make an impact and distinguish themselves from the BBC with hard-hitting programmes.
Pilger says, “Almost all of the more than 50 films I have made (mainly for the ITV, and some for Channel 4) have had to navigate a system that rarely declares its intention to create and shape public opinion.
“The BBC exemplifies this, with its specious neutrality, balancing contending extremes while turning out a flow of official assumptions and deceptions as ‘news’. In its youth, British commercial television was different.”
Since then, media workers have suffered massive attacks on their unions which have not only damaged their capacity to maintain conditions, but also their capacity to challenge editors and broadcasters.
The intervening period has also seen the rise of neoliberal policies which have themselves brought greater restrictions on the ability of journalists to buck the system – the “embedding” of war reporters being one clear example.
It is more difficult for journalists to “navigate” the system today. Programme requirements for “balance”, no hint of bias and watertight safeguards against legal action are greater than ever.
But that does not mean the doors are completely barred to hard-hitting programs. BBC2 was prepared to show one of the most hard-hitting documentaries about the build-up to the “war on terror”, Adam Curtis’s The Power Of Nightmares.
As radical writer Tariq Ali said at a recent Media Workers Against the War meeting, media workers who want to present programmes that uncover the truths that our rulers want desperately to cover up will have to fight for space.
That space can be won – but only through a campaign that brings together media workers sickened by the increasing contempt that their employers have for the truth, and a viewing public that demands programming that questions authority and does not insult their intelligence.
John Pilger’s debut feature film, The War On Democracy, opens at selected cinemas across Britain on Friday this week. He is interviewed about it in the latest Socialist Review. For more details go to » www.johnpilger.com