Typical of the Murdoch press: if you disagree with something, subject it to falsehoods and distortions

During Australia's bicentenary in 1988, an editorial in Rupert Murdoch's Sun described Aborigines as "treacherous and brutal", a people without skills, arts or graces who would have wiped themselves out if left alone. This was illustrated by a stereotype of a savage. The Press Council called it "offensive, misleading and unacceptably racist".

Murdoch is one of Australia's most powerful landowners and opponents of Aboriginal land rights. His political influence is pervasive. When the Labor government of Bob Hawke reversed its national land rights policy in the 1980s, in deference to the mining and landholding lobbies, Hawke claimed the Australian population was "less compassionate" towards Aborigines than it used to be. What he neglected to mention was that his government had actually measured this compassion in one of the most thorough surveys ever undertaken of white attitudes to the indigenous population.

The 64-page report was leaked to Murdoch's Australian, which splashed across its front page its "scoop" that fewer than one in five Australians supported land rights. This was false. The real significance of the report and the Australian's distortion was revealed much later when the historians Eve Fesl and Andrew Markus wrote: "The Australian chose not to report that 52 per cent of the respondents agreed that Aborigines should get land rights." The Australian Press Council subsequently upheld a complaint that the paper had misled its readers, yet the government made no attempt to dissociate itself from the false publicity.

Murdoch's grip on the Australian press is extraordinary. Of all the daily newspapers published in the capital cities, where most Australians live, two out of every three copies sold are Murdoch's. Three out of every four Sundays are Murdoch's. In Adelaide, he owns everything, including the printing presses. David Bowman, a former editor-in-chief of the Sydney Morning Herald, describes the Murdoch papers as an "augmented team of well broken horses".

The other day, three of them published versions of the same article by Bruce Wilson about my film, Welcome to Australia, shown last month on ITV. The film examines apartheid in Australian sport; and when it is shown in Australia on 28 September, it will take viewers to places most whites never see - the dustbowls and salt pans and fringe communities, where Aboriginal youngsters have none of the sporting facilities of white Australians. Here, entirely preventable diseases, such as trachoma, are rampant, and the death rate is among the highest in the world.

It is highly unlikely Murdoch had anything to do with the Wilson piece; his personal intervention is seldom necessary. However, Wilson produced something of a Murdoch model: a collection of falsehoods and distortions, beginning with the statement that he had "worked with Pilger for 30 years". Apart from bumping into him in Vietnam 24 years ago, I have never worked with him. He described my director, Alan Lowery, as "the Aboriginal film-maker". Lowery is a white Australian. He misrepresented Professor Colin Tatz, an expert witness, by putting his words into my mouth. He claimed that I said the International Olympic Committee may have been "duped" into giving Sydney the Olympics. I made no such claim.

He wrote that the Aboriginal sporting stars excluded from previous Olympic Games and highlighted in the film were "well-worn cases". The main witness, the great sprinter Wally McArthur, is virtually unknown in Australia - so much so that Murdoch's Adelaide Advertiser last Saturday "discovered" him in a two-page article. Charlie Perkins, the courageous Aboriginal leader who led freedom-rides into segregated towns in the outback in the 1960s, was subjected to a spot of character assassination by Wilson, who claimed Perkins once told him he "wasn't sure" about Asians. "The 60-minute doco" - actually it's 50 minutes - "is riddled by [sic] inaccuracies," wrote Wilson, having failed to identify a single inaccuracy.

I sent the Sydney Daily Telegraph a point-by-point rebuttal. A few meaningless sentences were published. The other Murdoch papers suppressed it. Meanwhile, Wilson's piece has been used as a source by Gerard Henderson, prime mover behind a local right-wing "think-tank", the Sydney Institute. Modelled on the far-right American groups which spent the Reagan years monitoring and "naming" liberal journalists, the "institute" has become something of an establishment watering hole as the Australian elite has moved to the right.

A former lobbyist for the present conservative prime minister, John Howard, the ubiquitous Henderson refuses to say who the institute's corporate backers are. Having been given his start in the Murdoch media, he has been a staunch defender of Murdoch and has attacked the publicly funded, and often politically beleaguered, ABC - which will show my film. His is a familiar routine: create a controversy before anyone else has seen the work, allege there are inaccuracies where there are none, and the cut-and-paste school of journalism will follow, diverting attention from the issues raised.

"The main message [of the film]," he declared in Murdoch's Courier-Mail, " is that Australia should not be hosting the Olympic Games." There is no such suggestion in the film. I merely say that no matter how successful the Sydney Olympics, Australian civilisation will be judged not by the splendour of a great sporting event, but by how it treats its indigenous people and how long it takes to deliver them basic justice.

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 20 September 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Men vanish from the universities