Driving in all directions

June 26, 1998

HIDDEN AGENDAS. By John Pilger. 687pp. Vintage. Paperback, Pounds 8.99. - 0 099 74151 2.

We live, according to John Pilger, not in an "information age", but rather in a "media age", in which "the available information is repetitive, 'safe', and limited by invisible boundaries". There is indeed a need for fierce criticism of the bizarre priorities, convenient omissions and occasional mendacities of the media. Who better to do it than John Pilger?

In Hidden Agendas, he looks at, among other issues: the international arms trade, the human consequences of Western policies in Iraq and the continuation of poverty and class division in Blairite Britain. He is a dissenter at the feast of globalization, reminding his readers of some home truths about the continuation of international inequality and state violence. The messages he seeks to convey are important. Sadly, he makes a hash of most of them.

Pilger makes point after point in a rhetorical, assertive and repetitive manner. He frequently says, without ever carefully arguing the point, that one quarter of a million Iraqis were slaughtered in the 1991 Gulf war, basing this claim on the conclusions of a commission headed by Ramsey Clark, who was US Attorney-General in the 1960s. But Clark is an unreliable witness: his estimates of the numbers of war dead, published in two books in 1992, were reached by a process that was unclear, and are almost certainly too high. Pilger, the fearless champion of truth, does not even hint to his readers that Clark's methods were dubious, or that there is serious evidence for a lower figure. In particular, the very low numbers of injured among the Iraqi prisoners taken by Coalition forces suggest that Iraqi military losses may have been far fewer than Clark, and Pilger, assert. Nor does Pilger tell his readers of the innovative Coalition leaflet-campaign, informing Iraqi soldiers that they would not be targets if they walked away from their military vehicles; this appears to have had a considerable effect.

Pilger's overall coverage of Iraq is nothing short of contemptible. He claims that the sanctions against Iraq, and the resulting misery of Iraqi civilians, are aimed not at bringing down Saddam Hussein, nor at deterring him from building "some mythical nuclear bomb", but rather at "preventing the 'market' competition of Iraqi oil from forcing down the price of oil produced by Saudi Arabia". He fails to advise readers of the clear conditions for lifting the sanctions as enunciated by the UN Security Council. This is characteristic Pilger: cavalier dismissal of a conventional argument, and insinuation of an underhand motive without any serious evidence. He says that the charge that Saddam Hussein is making weapons of mass destruction is unproven; in which case, the extensive discoveries and actual destruction of such weapons by the UN Special Commission on Iraq must be an elaborate hoax. If this is what Pilger believes he should have the honesty to say so rather than evading the issue.

On Cambodia, Pilger's justified revulsion at Khmer Rouge crimes led him to be almost completely uncritical of the Vietnamese involvement, and thus unsympathetic to the UN-assisted peace agreement which led to the elections of May 1993. Overall, his coverage of the UN is weak and inaccurate, and his characterization of the Security Council as an "immensely powerful imperial tool" is as unsubtle as it is predict-able. The coverage of famine similarly reflects Pilger's inability to accept moral complexity. He accuses the USA, with its massive overproduction of food, of "flooding the world market and destroying the agricultural base in many countries. In Korea, American surpluses . . . have so distorted the local market that up to 90 per cent of Korea's food is now imported from the United States." The possibility that North Korea's crisis may be partly due to gross mismanagement under Kim Il Sung and son is not mentioned.

Pilger is better when he writes from personal experience. He describes how he grew up in Sydney, which offered exhilarating body-surfing at Bondi Beach, and a melting-pot culture concealing the grim truth that the area had belonged to peoples who died "from diseases brought by the English, or were shot or poisoned". Aboriginal children were barred from entering the public swimming pools where the young Pilger swam. In 1969, with an Aborigine freedom rider, he "smashed down the gate of the Aboriginal reserve at Jay Creek in the Northern Territory by driving a Ford Falcon at it. The other way was to get permission and fill out forms with the certainty of refusal." He has been smashing down gates ever since. His suspicion of proper procedure and of Anglo-Saxon democratic governments, derived from his outrage at what was done to Aboriginals, and reinforced by what he saw of the US involvement in Vietnam, has never dimmed.

When he does decide to write about some monstrous tyranny of which he has direct experience, he can do so to excellent effect. The chapters on Burma, where he made a film and interviewed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, provide a memorable picture of a contemptible dictatorship. For students of press tyranny, too, this book has much to offer. Pilger is a fierce critic of media moguls from Maxwell to Murdoch. His account of working for the Daily Mirror is an elegy for the eccentric but essentially innocent pre-Maxwell days, then a bleakly humorous account of life with Captain Bob.

John Pilger says his book is "something of a J'Accuse directed at a journalism claiming to be free", as well as a tribute to journalists who de-mystify and disarm power, but this self-regarding comparison with Emile Zola's famous defence of Dreyfus is misplaced. Zola took precise aim, with deadly effect. Pilger drives a metaphorical Ford Falcon at practically everything in sight. The trouble is not just that he is sloppy in citing sources, gets names wrong and wrenches quotations out of context; it is also that his approach perpetuates a journalistic and political tradition that rejects all attempts at genuine understanding.

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