A bitter pill

The New Rulers of the World

John Pilger <em>Verso, 246pp, £10</em>

ISBN 185984393X

In more than three decades of crusading journalism, John Pilger has made many enemies. Some of them are the kinds of foes any reporter - indeed any honest person - would be proud to have: all those among the powerful, the brutal, corrupt and secretive whose misdeeds he has exposed and who still resent him for it. Tyrannical rulers, racist politicians and profit-gouging bosses of multinational companies in a dozen or more countries have very good cause to rue his lifelong propensity for exposing scandal.

Yet other, perhaps less malign, characters may also feel they have reason to be angry at Pilger. There is very little light and shade in his world-view. No situation is morally ambiguous, no history is complex and contested. There are only heroes (the title of one of his previous books) and villains. In such moods, a less-than-admirable Pilger emerges: self-righteous, moralising, undiscriminating, and rather less well informed - especially about history- than his sweepingly confident style suggests.

The unattractive side of his writerly persona surfaces occasionally in this book, which mainly collects and expands on his recent reports on Indonesia, Iraq and Australia for the NS and other papers. There is, for instance, an unfair dismissal of almost the entirety of western academia for its supposed complicity in the "new imperialism" led by the United States, its silence about atrocities and its "reactionary agenda". When he turns to Australia's treatment of its Aboriginal population, he similarly depicts a monolith. Almost no politician, however liberal, radical or just well-meaning, is credited even with good intentions, let alone with achieving any real progress. If they're not outright racists, they are fools and hypocrites. Again, no light and shade, no ambiguity. The stark polarities of Pilger's approach do not only oversimplify; they risk repelling the waverers, the troubled liberal souls whose support he should be trying to win.

And yet Pilger's - and this book's - virtues far outweigh the defects. The New Rulers of the World may be longer on anger than on analysis, but it has real power as an indictment of "globalisation". Pilger dislikes the word, for good reasons, and he is right to argue against those who think that states are becoming irrelevant. On the contrary: transnational companies still ride on the backs of the major states' military and political power. The fervour of the book is compelling, its interview material often poignant, its revelations of human suffering in Iraq, Indonesia and in the heart of affluent Australia shocking.

To Pilger, the supposed electoral democratic practices of the west have become mere hollow rituals masking an enforced ideological consensus. The main news media have become instruments of global thought control. US and British foreign policies are uniformly criminal. It is hard to take such arguments entirely at face value, but equally hard, in any good faith, to dismiss them out of hand. I have called Pilger's style "moralising", but perhaps the world, and indeed British journalism, could do with a few more moralisers of his kind. There are plenty enough of them on the political right, and more than enough cynics among our centre-left rulers. On the left, in the mainstream media, Pilger's is almost as lonely a voice as he says it is. And if such isolation stems in part from his own excesses, it is far more a reflection of our miserably conformist, timorous times.

Stephen Howe's most recent book is Ireland and Empire (OUP)