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John Pilger: exposing the rotten heart of the empire

This article is over 15 years, 2 months old
Journalist and film-maker John Pilger spoke to Charlie Kimber about his new book and the global resistance to imperialism, war and neoliberalism
Issue 2024
John Pilger
John Pilger

In his latest book, the marvellous Freedom Next Time, journalist and film-maker John Pilger presents “an antidote to authorised versions of contemporary history that censor by omission and impose double standards”.

The first chapter exposes the British government’s actions in the 1960s and 1970s when it expelled the population of the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean and handed over the island of Diego Garcia to the US.

The people, who are British citizens, were dumped in the Seychelles and Mauritius where they still live in poverty.

Suffering the fate of so many victims of imperialism, Diego Garcia’s 2,000 inhabitants became an “unpeople”.

“The expulsion of the people of the Chagos Islands by British governments is a vivid example of the way empire diminishes human beings,” said John.

“What struck me in the official files of the cover-up – mostly foreign office documents – was the contempt with which officials held the islanders. They referred to them as ‘Tarzans’ or as if they didn’t exist.

“One document, headed ‘Maintaining the fiction’, is a guide to how British officials should lie publicly about the enforced depopulation of people who had lived in the Chagos since the late 18th century.

“The official in charge of the expulsion demanded that the islanders’ dogs be exterminated but that horses, which belonged to the plantation company, should travel on deck. Women and children were confined below on a cargo of bird fertiliser.

“The same number of British citizens lived in the Falklands, and in 1982 Margaret Thatcher sent the Royal Navy to rescue them from the Argentines. The difference was that they were white.

 “Of course there have been many changes, but attitudes essentially haven’t changed. In the US empire, people other than the favoured elite – are considerely barely human. 

“Americans killed Vietnamese as if they were vermin – we remember the My Lai massacre, but in the same province, Quang Ngai, I found that as many as 50,000 Vietnamese had been slaughtered.

“The Vietnamese were merely ‘gooks’ and ‘dinks’. The same lethal racism is alive and well in Iraq. We now have the most rigorously tested estimate of Iraqi deaths and it’s 655,000.


“Not all these can be attributed to the Americans and British, but the violence they ignited is wholly responsible. A US colonel in the first Gulf slaughter said, ‘We count every screwdriver, but we don’t count dead civilians’.”

I asked John about the difference between the way Western leaders are treated in the media and those who resist them.

 “You only need watch or listen to the broadcast news from Afghanistan (and Iraq) to get a sense that ‘we’ are either eternal victims or forever doing our best in noble, trying circumstances,” said John.

“The opposite is invariably true, in my experience. The news will say that ‘40 Taliban’ or ‘200 insurgents’ have been killed. There will be no explanation of who these people really were. 

“It’s OK to kill Taliban in their own country, just as it was OK to kill communists whomever they were. The vermin factor again. Now and then, the ‘insurgents’ turn out to be families of 20 or 30, many of them children.

“That will be acknowledged in the Independent and the Guardian, but not for long. Afghanistan is considered the ‘right war’ to be fighting – that’s the propaganda. It’s a fraud, like the Iraq ‘war’.

“The mujahideen, who comprise the ‘bad’ Taliban and the ‘good’ CIA-bankrolled warlords, were turned into jihadists by the US and Britain’s obsession with destroying the Soviet Union.

“It was the ‘principled’ US President Carter who began secretly arming and training them. It was the ‘liberal’ President Clinton who secretly encouraged the Taliban in power.

“The notion that British squaddies are defending democracy in Afghanistan is absurd. ‘President’ Karzai dare not leave his bunker without a squad of US Special Forces guards.

“The Taliban’s achievement in power was to ban the opium business. Flushed with CIA money,  ‘our’ warlords restored it following the Taliban’s demise. John Reid neglected to mention this when he sent the British army off to put down the ‘drug barons’.”

 Those who expose the realities of imperialism can expect a fierce response, as John found when he made the documentary Palestine Is Still The Issue.

John said, “I knew that the hardest work would be dealing with the Zionist response. The film was followed by a blizzard of complaints, most of them orchestrated by an organisation in New York called ‘Honest Reporting’.

“The way it works is that these American Zionists write a generic complaining e-mail and people all over the world send it to ITV having not seen the film.

“In Britain, I received death threats delivered with posh north London accents. The Independent Television Commission (ITC) decided to investigate and subjected the film to an exhaustive enquiry, which required my producer Chris Martin and me to write the equivalent of a doctoral thesis defending the film.

“Every statement, every frame of film had to be substantiated.


“The Zionist campaign failed. The ITC praised my film’s ‘journalistic integrity’ and the ‘comprehensiveness and authority’ of its historical and other factual sources. I suppose that proved an old maxim: always stand up to bullies.”

Isn’t there a danger, I ask, that the book’s chapter on the South African experience of continuing and even worsening poverty after the end of apartheid could make people wonder if the struggle was worthwhile.

 “The South Africa chapter describes no more that that which most South Africans themselves believe,” said John. “The Mbeki government swallowed neoliberalism whole.

“They betrayed the Freedom Charter and the memories of those who fought apartheid. The result is increasing poverty – and a rich, often corrupt black elite has made its peace with white capital. 

“Of course, the struggle was worth it!

“Today, there is a vibrant resistance in South Africa, and my guess is that important changes in the ANC alliance are coming. After all, it was Nelson Mandela who warned, ‘If the ANC does not deliver the goods, the people must do to it what they have done to the apartheid regime’.”

This book is a powerful weapon for all who fight empire.

Freedom Next Time by John Pilger

Available for £17.99 from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

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