The Film Interview: John Pilger

How journalists help to promote war - and what can be done to stop it.

John Pilger is a journalist, documentary maker and New Statesman columnist. His new film, "The War You Don't See", is in cinemas from 13 December and will be broadcast on ITV1 on 14 December. More details here.

The War You Don't See is about the media's role in promoting and sanitising contemporary wars. Why make this film at this particular moment?

I have been writing and making films about media and war for many years. Translating this critique to film, especially the insidious power of public relations, has been something of an ambition. Peter Fincham had just taken over as director of programmes at ITV two years ago and clearly wanted to restore some of ITV's factual legacy. He was enthusiastic about the idea; he also knew the film would be critical of ITV. That's unusual.

Since I first went to Vietnam as a young reporter, I have been aware of the rituals and undercurrents and pressures within journalism that determine the news as much as the quality of the news itself. Broadcast journalism has a powerful mysticism; the BBC pretends that it is objective and impartial in the coverage of most things, especially war. The pressure to believe and maintain this pretence is almost an article of faith. For the public, the reality is very different. The University of Wales and the montoring organisation Media Tenor conducted two studies of the TV coverage in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq. Both found the BBC overwhemingly followed the government line: that its reporting of anti-war views amounted to only a few per cent. Among the major western broadcasters, only CBS in America had a worse record. The public has a right to know why.

Why do you think journalists who reported on the Iraq War - a number of whom you interview in the film - are now so willing to admit they did not do their jobs properly? What prevented them from realising that at the time?

The atmosphere has changed. No one is in any doubt now that the reasons for the invasion of Iraq were fraudulent, as are the reasons for invading Afghanistan, as were the reasons for invading Vietnam. Still, the journalists who describe in my film were it all - and they - went wrong are courageous. I asked a number of others to appear, such as Andrew Marr and Jeremy Paxman, and heard nothing back. Indeed, the more famous the name, the greater an apparent unwillingness to discuss why, as Paxman told a group of students, they were "hoodwinked".

Do independent online sources - Wikileaks being the most prominent example at the moment - allow the public to bypass corporate media entirely?

Yes, but remember the public's principal source of information is still television. The main BBC News programmes have enormous influence. Certainly, as Wikileaks has demonstrated, the agenda of the "mainstream" is increasingly guided by the world wide web. For me, as a journalist, the web offers the most interesting and often most reliable sources because they are shorn of the consensual bias, and a censorship by omission, that pervades broadcasting.

Understandably, your focus is on war reporting. But the film also suggests that our entertainment industry plays a role in disseminating propaganda. How can that be effectively countered?

There is no propaganda machine like Hollywood. As Ken Loach pointed out recently, the great majority of movies in British cinemas are American, or British with American funding. This has led to the appropriation of both fact and fiction: of art itself. Edward Said describes the effect in his book Culture and Imperialism, pointing out that the penetration of a a corporate, imperial culture is now deeper than at any time. How do we combat it? We support independent film-makers and independent cinemas and distributors. We begin to think about journalism as a "fifth estate" in which the public plays a part and media organisations are held to account.

Even when the harsh reality of war is reported truthfully and accurately, audiences can simply choose to ignore it. Are there particular techniques you pursue in your film-making to avoid this happening?

Surely, the responsibility of persuading and challenging people, of exciting their imagination, belongs to us film-makers and journalists. Blaming the public is an admission of our own inadequacy. My experience is that people will respond positively if you make the connection with their own lives, or attempt to articulate the way they worry about the world, its wars and other upheavals. If you call power to account with facts, you get the reward of support from an audience. In other words, when people realise you are their agent, not an agent of a monolith called "the media", or of other powerful interests, they give you their time and interest. That makes journalism a privilege.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage