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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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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