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.

Davide Restivo at Wikimedia Commons
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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.