In the spring of 1983, the late and greatly missed John Pilger began broadcasting a series of interviews called "The Outsiders" on British television. John’s subjects ranged widely. Costa-Gavras, Jessica Mitford, Seán MacBride, the Irish political figure and 1974 Nobelist, Helen Suzman, the South African anti-apartheid activist: John chose “people who have lived their lives outside the system,” as the Channel 4 tagline put it.
My personal favorites among John’s interviewees, the ones who mean the most to me, were Wilfred Burchett and Martha Gellhorn, two of the 20th century’s most exceptional foreign correspondents. “He has been the only Western journalist to consistently report events from the other side, ‘the wrong side,’” John said as he introduced the Burchett segment.1 Of Gellhorn John offered this:
“As one who has never been a cipher for authority, who has written always from the point of view of the victims of war, Martha Gellhorn has kept the record straight more than most, and for that reason alone she is a distinguished outsider.”
Now I am going to seize John’s video camera and turn it straight back at him. John was among his own people when he did The Outsiders. If there was much in his long and varied career to distinguish him, it was John Pilger’s place as an outsider that most critically defined his work. If he did not understand how important it was and remains to so situate oneself, he would not have done the series.
John died in London December 30 after a fight of some time with pulmonary fibrosis, aged 84. It landed especially hard when word that we had lost him reached me some hours later: I had thought that morning, “I must telephone John to wish him a Happy New Year.” It is always yet more bitter, the loneliness more piercing, when such opportunities are missed.
My thoughts that afternoon went quickly to something I. F. Stone said on various occasions. All true journalists are outsiders, the great Izzy used to say, and each generation produces but few of them.
John was among the few of his time.
When John came up in the late-1950s, independent media such as Consortium News were not so developed as they are now. You learned from within how to survive as an outsider. John, born in New South Wales in 1939, a month after World War II began, started at 19 in that most unheralded of professional positions: He was a copy boy at a long-gone Sydney tabloid called “The Sun”. By 1962 he was in London, for a time working the Middle East desk at Reuters. A year later the “Daily Mirror” hired him, and John’s star began to rise.
It rose and rose. As a correspondent he covered, among very much else, the wars in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Biafra. Among his many awards, he was voted Journalist of the Year in 1967, International Reporter of the Year in 1970, News Reporter of the Year four years later, and Journalist of the Year again in 1979. That is how it was for John: His gift was always evident.
By the mid-1970s television and documentaries were an increasing part of the work. Year Zero: The Silent Death of Cambodia (1979), Death of a Nation: The Timor Conspiracy (1994), Palestine Is Still the Issue (2002), The Coming War with China (2016): These are standouts among John’s films. The last was his 60th documentary for British television. Sixty: The man’s energy and dedication to his craft were prodigious.
Remaining faithful to
professional ethics and ideals
Here and there in print and in various conversations, John used to remark that there had once been places in the corporate press, a very few, where reporters and correspondents could hold to their ideals, professional ethics, and the standards journalists are supposed to reflect in their work. John’s career proved the point.
But these places shrank and then disappeared, John would always add. He seemed to think this was a consequence of the Cold War’s end, if I understand his view correctly. My date for the precipitous decline in the profession we shared was 2001, but no matter: We also shared the thought that a corporate-owned press where one could still produce honest work – English, American, Australian – no longer exists and, depending on how things turn out in coming years, we may never again know such a press.
I describe the path that led John and I, separately, into independent media. And I have since looked to John as a demonstration of a truth I consider fundamental. For better or worse and for the time being, the best independent journalists are those who have been trained in the methods – but certainly not the ideology and all the compromises with power – of legacy media.
I knew of John Pilger long before I knew him. He came out to Asia for the “Daily Mirror” in 1982 to report on child abuse and the trafficking of children in Thailand, both of which had long been grim realities. At the time I was running the Far Eastern Economic Review’s Singapore bureau and was well on the way to being expelled for my reporting.
John’s piece for the “Mirror” told the story of an 8-year-old named Sunee, who John purchased for £ 85 and returned to her mother. The piece was picked up around the world. It then emerged that Sunee and her mother had been paid by Pilger’s Thai fixer to tell an entirely fictitious story for the sake of a splash on page 1. John suspected, as he explained in a telephone conversation as recently as last summer, it was an intelligence sting intended to discredit him. My own inclination, based solely on the idiotic things people can get up to in the profession John and I shared, is that a local fixer concocted a sensational story to please his European employers.
I mention this incident because it is in the record and should be addressed. The important points here are two. One, John may have been had, but he did not do any of the having-set up, in other words, but not the setter-upper. Two, his professional reputation remained intact, as it should have, and we can mark down the Thai incident as a mishap and nothing more. His post-Thailand work includes some of his very best. A year later, indeed, he did The Outsiders, the superb set of interviews produced for Channel 4.
How pleasantly odd it was when, decades later, John wrote while making The Coming War with China to ask if I could help him navigate through the many-sided maritime claims in the South China Sea, a complex question successive American administrations have distorted so as to cast China as the neo-imperial villain of East Asia.
We subsequently became friends, cyberly. Two years later, when I moved my foreign affairs column to Consortium News, John was a member of the board. When, more years later, I began publishing The Floutist on Substack, John was generous in sending pieces we were welcome to publish. We always did, and they were always excellent.
Maybe there is nothing that better reflects his understanding of the importance of independent media, as well as his humanity, more plainly than his support for Julian Assange. When Assange was arrested in London in 2010, it was he was one among others who posted bail. After Assange was removed from the Ecuadoran Embassy years later and moved to Belmarsh Prison, John was a faithful visitor, ever compassionate, ever supportive. Their friendship endured, of course, until John’s death.
“Journalism is simply the act of keeping the record straight.” So John quoted Martha Gellhorn in the introduction to his 1983 interview with her.2 This is what John stood for as I have long thought of him. It is a question of uncompromised professionalism and an understanding of journalism as an independent pole of power – neither now in plentiful supply.
There is a related point worth making here. All correspondents bring their politics with them – a natural thing, a good thing, an affirmation of their engaged, civic selves not at all to be regretted. The task is to manage one’s politics in accord with one’s professional responsibilities, the unique place correspondents occupy in public space. John understood this as well or better than any of us. It was the ballast that gave weight to everything he did.
Last May, in behalf of a publishing cooperative in Switzerland, I invited John to speak at a series of lectures to be delivered at a conference at summer’s end. He wrote back to say he would love to be there but was unwell and was unlikely to be up to traveling by early September. John being a reserved, somewhat private man, I did not know then the nature of his ailment and did not consider it my place to ask. But it was at that moment I understood he was waging a fight of some seriousness.
On New Year’s Eve I telephoned Eva-Maria Föllmer-Müller, who helps administer the Swiss lecture series, to share the news of John’s death. She already knew. “He wrote with a very clear mind,” she said without hesitation. “But he also wrote with great emotion, from the heart.” I cannot improve on this assessment of what John Pilger did.
George Burchett, one of Wilfred’s sons now living and painting in Hanoi, where he was born, was a friend of John’s (as he is of mine). He wrote a brief appreciation on New Year’s Day and sent it around via the People’s Information Bureau, his privately distributed newsletter. George wrote, and I share this with readers as he shared it with me:
“I remember asking John in an email, in a moment of despair, some years ago:
‘And what are we supposed to do?’
He emailed back:
‘George, we keep doing what we do.’
That is sound advice, especially in moments of darkness.
Thank you, John!
For everything.” •
First published: Special to consortiumnews.com of 8 January 2024
* Patrick Lawrence is a writer, a commentator, a critic, a longtime newspaper and magazine correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the “International Herald Tribune”. He is a columnist, essayist, author and lecturer. His next to last book is "Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century", Yale 2013. In July 2023 his new book "Journalists and Their Shadows" was published by Clarity Press. His web site is patricklawrence.us. Support his work via patreon.com/thefloutist.
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