The media lies at the heart of our society and our perceptions of the day-to-day, shaping public opinion and marking out the lines of acceptable debate.
It’s become a cliché for the Left to criticise mainstream media (read ‘corporate media’) for its many shortcomings, most crucially how capable it can be of speaking truth to power when so much of that power is held by the large companies who keeps it afloat. The Right’s response to these observations is usually an offhand remark about conspiracy theories or communism.
There are a number of admirable exceptions to this rule, journalists who really dig deep and expose the power structures which do their best to conceal themselves. John Pilger is one such journalist, having worked as a documentary filmmaker and writer for over 40 years. Pilger is particularly interested in British and American foreign policy, imperialism and the rise of China, which is explored in his upcoming documentary, The Coming War with China, his 60th film for ITV.
I spoke to John in the run-up to his appearance at the Crucible on 27 October as part of Off The Shelf and Festival of Debate, at which he will discuss his newly-updated book, New Rulers of the World.
How much has changed since New Rulers Of The World was first published in 2001?
The themes of the book haven’t changed at all. The world is still gripped by the rapacious power of its rulers. These are principally western governments, mainly the militarist US, and transnational corporations. What has changed is the arrival of a new economic power, China, challenging the dominance of the US.
If you could identify some of the root causes of the injustices you write about, what would you say they are?
They are the forces of undemocratic, unaccountable power imposed from above, in the interests of the few – the infamous “one per cent”.
You have described the Brexit vote as “an act of raw democracy”. Can you see potential positives coming from our exit from the EU?
Many. If people seize them and act outside the power bloc of the EU, the British can have a new relationship with all the world. What is likely is that, freed from the obligations and strictures of EU policies, Britain’s political and corporate elite will reassert its imperial power around the world. That, of course, is already the case. Britain is the world’s second biggest arms manufacturer, exporting to mostly non-EU countries.
The EU is basically a creation of imperial transatlantic forces and interests in trade, investment and hostility to Russia. There were principled ‘never again’ elements following the Second World War, but these were lost in the mentality of a power bloc.
The social democracy that in 1960 was the model for European countries has been undermined by extreme neoliberal policies that recently crushed one of the most vulnerable members, Greece. I think many Britons who voted to leave understood well that the EU held nothing for them, only more austerity and more diktats from on high. The hysterical campaign to remain had no relevance to their lives.
I don’t know what ‘benefits’ there will be. British fishing communities are certainly overjoyed; they can fish without inspectors from Brussels ordering their lives. If nothing else, the Brexit vote was that rare occurrence – an act of raw democracy.
In the past you’ve been outspoken about your endorsement of media analysis website Media Lens, and theirs is a similarly unapologetic approach to yours. When first starting out as a journalist, did you ever worry about the consequences of ‘upsetting the apple cart’?
My support for Media Lens expresses a long-held view that journalists like myself should be independent of vested interests; that is, agents of people, not power. As for apple carts, it depends which apple cart you’re referring to. If you mean calling authority to account, then upsetting that apple cart ought to be basic to a journalist’s job.
What are your thoughts around the idea of ‘post capitalism’, which some argue is coming about due to increasing automation, disruptive technologies and the sharing economy?
Post capitalism is another one of those mind-numbing pieces of jargon that conceal their real meaning. Capitalism has never been more ubiquitous than it is today. The most destructive and virulent variety is something called neoliberalism – basically, the power of the few and their money. This has captured much of technology in the digital age and promoted what used to be called automation. I wonder when people use the automated checkouts at supermarkets if they realise that the machine in front of them is probably or will be someone’s job. Nothing is preordained, of course, and principled, tenacious politics can make technology work for all of humanity.
What is the most important unreported story unfolding in the world right now?
The provocation and beckoning of a world war. The signs are unmistakable and largely unreported. This is the subject of my new film, The Coming War on China, which is to be released in the UK in December and broadcast on ITV.
One of the salutary stories it tells is the ‘secret’ of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific. Dismissed as savages, the Marshall Islanders were made guinea pigs for the testing of America’s nuclear weapons. I filmed on Bikini, around which the equivalent of one Hiroshima bomb was exploded every day for 12 years. Bikini itself is still radioactive and the people have refused to go back. What makes this relevant to today is that the US has established in the Marshall Islands a base where weapons of mass destruction are once again being tested. The base was set up to combat China.
On the Japanese island of Okinawa, 132 US military installations bristle with war material and troops, right next to China. On the Korean island of Jeju, a vast base has been built for ships with missiles aimed at China’s defences. What this means is that Washington is seeking to reassert its dominance in the face of the rise of China, and that holds great danger for us all.
Is socialism dead?
Socialism exists in the way most of us live our lives, sharing, supporting and looking out for other people. It’s a natural human state.
Translating these natural principles to political structures has powerful opponents. Socialist progress has actually been spectacular in recent years, in our recognition of racism, sexism and the way each of us wants to live our lives without fear of persecution. This may not be called socialism, but it’s from the same wellspring.
John Pilger will speak at the Crucible on Thursday 27 October as part of Off The Shelf and Festival of Debate. Tickets are available from offtheshelf.org.uk at £10/£9 concessions.