Matt Nippert - working dog, Auckland

Monday, November 15, 2004

Pilger’s Progress

The say when the going gets tough, the tough get going. And going I have been, much like a rampant infection of the clappers. As you might have noted, work has been keeping me busy, but fortunately some of the fruits of my labour have been allowed to fall to ground. You can catch an off-the-cuff letter to Democrats asking them to consider moving to New Zealand here. An interview with Rex Weyler and analysis of the origins of Greenpeace is available here. Unfortunately a piece on investigative journalism featuring an interview with John Pilger is off-line, but I am able to offer some tit-bits further down.

I consider writing to be less a science, and more an art, and an ugly art at that. I fully agree with economist, former US ambassador to India and architect of the American World War II economy John Kenneth Galbraith when he said "effortless prose takes at least six drafts". I usually stop my own turgid prose at three. I have no truck with grammar Nazis like Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots and Leaves. (For an excellent dissection of her book, read this review by Louis Menand. Scroll past the tedious section until you get to the part where he describes writing as singing.) Writing is about rhythm, verve and creativity. Rules are guides only and should be bent and broken in pursuit of a better sentence. The world is not going to hell (although perhaps my subeditors might be) because I don’t use apostrophes correctly.

But to the point, writing, nonfiction especially, is about gathering ideas and evidence, and then channeling that into words, sentences, paragraphs. Eventually a piece, fully-formed, emerges. Spooky. It’s painful, tedious and does nothing for my blood-levels or ethereal motivation to quit smoking. That said, I wouldn’t dream of doing anything else.

So, in my roundabout way, I introduce what I hope to be a regular feature at Fightingtalk, peering behind the curtain at the elements that make up a story. This week, it’s an interview with John Pilger. Wanting to avoid a straight profile (and inevitably rehashing the entertaining but pointless tête-à-tête with Kim Hill), I instead discussed his latest book in terms of New Zealand.

Tell Me No Lies rates as one of the best pieces of non-fiction I’ve read this year, and I’ve steered clear of fiction for the last wee while – reality is weird enough for me, thank you very much. A collection of staggering journalistic scoops ranging from the first piece out of Hiroshima (where the reporter sneaked out of the official tour party to dispute the claim of radiation as "Japanese propaganda"), to Seymour Hersh’s first My Lai piece, to this sweet story by Jessica Mitford on craven exploitation by the funeral industry.

Anyway, here’s John Pilger on investigative journalism. I’ll be busy for the next week, but might have something particularly amusing and Python-oriented when I return. Enjoy.

Matt Nippert: Do the journalists whose work features in your book share common characteristics?
John Pilger: Professionally I would say yes. The theme of the book is that these are journalists who have tried to call great power to account, which I’ve described as one of the paramount principles of journalism. I do associate myself with a number of these people and personally they’re all very different, they’re all mavericks, there are a rich range of personalities, as you might have noted.
MN: Doesn’t being a maverick put them offside with both their subjects and their editors?
JP: Well yes it does, although not with good editors. Good editors nurture mavericks, which makes them good editors. Mediocre editors don’t exploit them fully, the talents of mavericks. I think it puts them offside with authority generally, again, that ought to be another principle of journalism. I’ve used, possibly my favorite quotation, on the cover of the book: “never believe anything until it’s officially denied”. That is a truism actually, as we’ve seen over the recent events over Iraq.
MN: There must be motivation for doing this work – after all, it can’t be fun getting heavied by your boss or authority figures.
JP: I think part of it is an affinity with the underdog, believing in social justice, that’s basic journalism. Many of these great mavericks have expressed an understanding of humanity, humanity running through their work. Journalism originally was that, and the idea of the journal, go back to Swift and Dickens and so on.
MN: What sort of world would we be living in if these stories you included were not broken?
JP: I’m not very good at speculation, so really the answer to that is I don’t know. But let’s say if William Burchett had not revealed that nuclear weapons, when they exploded spread radiation. Undoubtedly somebody else would have done that along the line. I think that one disclosure alerted large numbers of the human race to this great threat, to their survival, the world’s survival. Perhaps we’d be living in a differenet world – I don’t know. I think some of these are scoops that almost, you could say almost, changed the world, but you never know if they did or not. And it’s political action, at whatever level government or whatever, that changes things. That’s how human beings change conditions and they do it on the basis of information. Information ought to come from those of us whoa re paid to keep the record straight.
MN: What inhibits investigative journalism?
JP: The answer to that is the same that it is anywhere: those who own newspapers are not prepared to put the resources into what will be long and patient work that may not necessarily succeed. Investigative journalism needs time, it needs resources. These days, especially these days, editors want quick-fix journalism. Investigative journalism can embarrass politically, it can embarrass commercially. There are plenty of cases of investigative work being curtailed because of that.
MN: How can more investigative journalism be encouraged?
JP: I think it starts in the media colleges which have now taken over the training of journalists. When I started this kind of journalism, although it was never called investigative, the term didn’t exist then, this kind of journalism was encouraged by other journalists in a kind of journalist apprentice situation. But now it’s been formalised in an academic, or quasi-academic, setting. So that young journalists seem to emerge thinking that their principle source is going to be authority, government, various people in authority – they are the source of news – and they’re not. And if media colleges taught the Martha Gelhorn dictim, that you report from the ground up and not from the top, I think it would begin to turn out better journalists and investigative journalists. Perhaps one of the problems is editors have become managers, they become economic managers – the cult of corporatism runs through everything. This is all the nonsense that has been exported from America and contaminated practically everything that we do. We have the news last week that Reuters is outsourcing to India. From their point of view it makes sense: they get cheap labour and they make a fortune out of it, but if editors were editors and not managers, if they didn’t have to forever think of the bottom line, if they were allowed to edit and that their principle loyalty was to their staff and to their readers, not to the boardroom, the quality of journalism would change almost overnight.
MN: You recently screened a documentary on the Diego Garcia military base and how locals were expelled extra-legally for military purposes. How was the reaction to that?
JP: Terrific, just overwhelming actually. In the first couple of days I had over a thousand emails, from people wanting to do something about it and demanding why this has been allowed to go on. Others wanting to give to the support fund, but mostly people wanting to call to account the governemnt, because the present government is up to its neck in it. The law firm that has been representing them [the locals who were expelled from their homes] were contacted this week by two Law Lords who said privately they wanted to give their services free to helping this case. It is such an irrefutable scandal, an act of injustice that runs against the grain of all kinds of people and interests in this country. And it’s a British story – it’ll probably be shown in New Zealand, TVNZ have shown an interest in it, and they usually show my stuff.
MN: How did you go about digging up the 30-year-old government documents which proved central to establishing culpability by the US and British governments?
JP: I wanted to do this story for some time but it just took some years to get the right time and space to do it. And then I heard about these documents. These documents have been available, they have been in the public records office in London, for about seven years. It’s a comment on journalism as well that no journalist has gone into the public records office and looked for them and found them. One academic, an historian called Mark Curtis, mentioned them. And then the lawyers went in, we all went in there. There was this treasure trove of documents that fill a long table, just piles of them. It took quite a while just to go through them and pull them together. This year we went to the national archives in Washington and spent quite a long time working through the papers there. We found the American side of it in papers as well. So we showed where it had all begun, the Americans had demanded the lease on Diego Garcia and there’s the correspondence between the officials and how they hid it from congress – there’s no record of payment. Instead $14m was taken off the cost of a Polaris missile that was being supplied to the Royal Navy, that’s how they hid it before Congress found out about it later on. At the center they were hiding it because the Americans wanted the island to be depopulated, which they were.
PS: Did anyone else feel a chill, during Bush’s acceptance speech, when the President-elect called Karl Rove “the architect”? Read it in conjunction with this section from a New York Times Magazine article where Ron Suskind talks to a Bush aide in the heat of the campaign:

"The aide said that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'" The aide then said, "That's not the way the world really works anymore. We're an empire now, and when we act we create our own reality."
Matrix anyone?

I'd also like to extend my thanks to the Peace Foundaton, generously gave me an award for my piece on the (then) coming prison crisis. Now, with stories "breaking" on prisoners being held for weeks in police and court cells, I almost feel like saying "told you so." Or, as Pilger put it so combatively last year, people just need to read.