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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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear