John Pilger, Journalist For People, Dies

John Pilger
John Pilger working on ITV’s The Timor Conspiracy, originally screened in 1994, on the human tragedy caused by the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975. Photograph: Carlton Television

John Pilger, world famous investigative journalist and documentary filmmaker, has died on Saturday at his home in London, his family announced on Sunday in a post on X (formerly Twitter). John Pilger was 84. John Pilger is considered a journalist for people, a journalist voicing the people.

A statement posted to his account on X said: “It is with great sadness the family of John Pilger announces he died yesterday 30 December 2023 in London.

“His journalism and documentaries were celebrated around the world, but to his family he was simply the most amazing and loved Dad, Grandad and partner. Rest In Peace.”

Pilger is survived by his partner and his two children Sam and Zoe, who are also writers.

Throughout his career, Pilger was a strong critic of western foreign policy and his native country’s treatment of Indigenous Australians.

Vietnam, Biafra, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Iraq

Pilger was known for his hard-hitting exposés on the human cost of empire, from the wars in Vietnam, Cambodia, Biafra, Bangladesh, and Iraq, to Western democracies’ systematic repression of their own working classes. His documentaries include ‘Year Zero: The Silent Death of Cambodia’, ‘Breaking the Silence: Truth and Lies in the War on Terror’, ‘The War on Democracy’, ‘Palestine is Still the Issue’, and ‘The Coming War with China’. 

He covered conflicts in Vietnam, Cambodia, Bangladesh and Biafra, and was named journalist of the year in 1967 and 1979. Pilger had a successful career in documentary film-making, creating more than 50 films and winning a number of accolades includes honours at the Baftas.

“Every journalist, even though they may not know it, owes a debt to John Pilger,” Going Underground host Afshin Rattansi told Sunday, calling the award-winning filmmaker “one of the greatest journalists in all of history.”

Rattansi highlighted Pilger’s tireless campaigning on behalf of WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange, incarcerated at Britain’s Belmarsh Prison since police dragged him out of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in 2019, as a prominent piece of his legacy. He credited the journalist for “Assange’s survival and him not being killed in the CIA plot” by the agency’s then-director Mike Pompeo.

Pilger “realized journalism was about illuminating things for the ordinary person, not for elites, it is not for awards,” Rattansi explained, praising his late friend and colleague for his “moral compass in which he looked at everything from the bottom up, from the viewpoint of the average person.” 

“He was a vocal critic of fake journalism that is so on display when we look at Gaza, when we look at Ukraine, and he was banned de facto by all British media,” he said.

Pilger was long a fixture at mainstream news outlets, working for the Daily Mirror, Reuters, and ITV’s World in Action.

Frozen Out By The Establishment

Pilger was gradually frozen out by the establishment over the last decade, with The Guardian the last to end regular publication of his column in 2015, in what the journalist himself described as a “purge of those who were saying what The Guardian no longer says anymore.” 

Former colleagues nevertheless flocked to social media to pay their respects. Pilger was “a great Daily Mirror journalist back in the day, one of the very best. Brave, insightful, challenging authority, and instinctively own the side of the underdog,” that outlet’s associate editor, Kevin Maguire, wrote on X. 

ITV managing director Kevin Lygo called Pilger “a giant of campaigning journalism” who “eschewed comfortable consensus and instead offered a radical, alternative approach on current affairs and a platform for dissenting voices over 50 years.” 

Pilger was a vocal supporter of Julian Assange and visited the WikiLeaks founder in the Ecuador embassy in London where he sought asylum after facing charges related to the publication of thousands of classified documents.

Assange’s wife, Stella, wrote on X: “Our dear dear John Pilger has left us. He was one of the greats. A consistent ally of the dispossessed, John dedicated his life to telling their stories and awoke the world to the greatest injustices.

“He showed great empathy for the weak and was unflinching with the powerful. John was one of Julian’s most vocal champions but they also became the closest of friends. He fought for Julian’s freedom until the end.”

Last Column For The Guardian

In his last column for the Guardian, in 2015, he condemned how “aboriginal people are to be driven from homelands where their communities have lived for thousands of years”.

Born in Bondi, New South Wales, Pilger relocated to the UK in the 1960s, where he went on to work for the Daily Mirror, ITV’s former investigative programme World in Action and Reuters.

In 1979, the ITV film Year Zero: The Silent Death Of Cambodia revealed the extent of the ruling Khmer Rouge’s crimes. Pilger won an Emmy award for his 1990 follow-up ITV documentary, Cambodia: The Betrayal.

Pilger also made the 1974 ITV documentary Thalidomide: The Ninety-Eight We Forgot, about the campaign for compensation for children after concerns were raised about birth defects when expectant mothers took the drug.

John Pilger1
John Pilger in ITV’s Breaking the Silence, Truth and Lies in the War on Terror in 2003. Photograph: ITV/Rex Features

Kevin Lygo, the managing director of media and entertainment at ITV, said: “John was a giant of campaigning journalism. He had a clear, distinctive editorial voice which he used to great effect throughout his distinguished filmmaking career. His documentaries were engaging, challenging and always very watchable.

“He eschewed comfortable consensus and instead offered a radical, alternative approach on current affairs and a platform for dissenting voices over 50 years.

“John’s films gave viewers analysis and opinion often not seen elsewhere in the television mainstream. It was a contribution that greatly added to the rich plurality of British television.

“Our thoughts and condolences are with John’s family, friends and colleagues at this sad time.”

The former Pink Floyd musician Roger Waters, who has also supported Assange, said of Pilger: “I miss you my friend, what a great man you were. We will carry you in our hearts forever, you will always be there to give us strength. Love R.”

Pilger made a number of films about Indigenous Australians such as The Secret Country: The First Australians Fight Back in 1985 and Utopia in 2013, as well as writing a bestselling book, A Secret Country, which explored the politics and policies of Australia.

His last film, The Dirty War on the National Health Service, was released in 2019 and examined the threat to the NHS from privatisation and bureaucracy. It was described by the Guardian’s film critic Peter Bradshaw as “a fierce, necessary film”.

In 2003, Pilger received the Sophie prize for “30 years of uncovering the lies and propaganda of the powerful, especially as they relate to wars, conflict of interests and economic exploitation of people and natural resources”.

John Pilger2
John Pilger talks to journalists outside Horseferry Road magistrates court in London in 2010 after Julian Assange was remanded in custody. Photograph: Felix Clay

Pilger edited the 2005 book Tell Me No Lies: Investigative Journalism and its Triumphs, in which he summed up his journalistic values. “Secretive power loathes journalists who do their job, who push back screens, peer behind façades, lift rocks,” he said. “Opprobrium from on high is their badge of honour.”

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