Friday 30 March 2007



The piece below was written in January 2006. I have decided to publish it on this blog after listening to Pilger speaking with Philip Adams this week on Late Night Live about Bobby Kennedy. In a few simple sentences Pilger managed to despatch all American Presidents including and since Eisenhower to a hell of ethical ignominy.

The question I was hoping for from Adams was "Is America unique in its capacity to churn out the worst possible leaders? Do other countries (apart from US allies of course) ever produce leaders of equivalent moral depravity as the United States or is it a special US gene? Has there ever been a relatively good leader in the US or anywhere else?

Pilger's angles on so many issues are absurd. He is one of the few progressive writers who fits the ideological template so over played on by Henderson, Devine and others.

Perhaps the most adsurd outburst from Pilger was an effort to place Clinton and Bush in similar camps in terms of creating international chaos and destruction. This is patently ridiculous and shows the simplistic untextured views that provide Pilger his platform.

Anyway, here is the piece from early 2006.

John Pilger’s new book is called Tell Me No Lies. It’s a collection of some of the most important investigative journalism of the past six decades. I have only read some of the book but with familiar names like Wilfred Burchett, Seymour Hersh, Greg Palast and Eric Schlosser aboard it is sure to be an excellent read.

Here in Sydney, the book’s release coincides with the John Pilger Film Festival and I attended last night to view two of Pilger’s Vietnam documentaries – The Quiet Mutiny (1970) and Last Battle (1995) and to hear the man speak in person.

Pilger is a man revered by some, hated by many. I’m really not sure how to place him. I sympathise with so much of what he has to say. Yet, I feel very uncomfortable with his approach and analysis.

In my first few years of living in Vietnam, I made a point of reading many of Pilger’s books including Heroes and later Distant Voices. I have also read A Secret Country and The New Rulers of the World. I had a great regard for Pilger and his morally charged crusading style. He had a big impact on my twenty something world view. My worshipping of the campaigner has subsided in recent years and I have struggled to make sense of my ambivalence.

Last night’s films crystalised my dilemma.

Pilger forces his positions on the reader or viewer and often uses either dubious techniques or thin and questionable arguments to make his case. A favourite Pilger subject matter and one about which I have some knowledge is Vietnam – during the war and after. A viewing of Pilger’s film on post war Vietnam (1995) provides few insights into the reality of the country and would likely be viewed as offensive and patronising to Vietnamese of all political colours. Pilger cannot transcend his pre 1975 Vietnam War era headspace. He can view the Vietnamese only as victims – mostly of American misdeeds.

Massive as these misdeeds were, Vietnam’s story, like so many of those that Pilger reduces to morality tales drained of all complexity, is one of more grey than Pilger is able to acknowledge. Americans and South Vietnamese tarred with one brush = evil imperialist / corrupt traitors. Vietnamese and Vietnamese villagers = practitioners of high morality and justice. Pilger does not state these things. His presentation of the “facts” and his glaring omissions paint the picture for him.

It’s hard to pick Pilger’s most grievous distortion. Two howlers do spring to mind (I’m finishing this piece some weeks later now). At one point in the film, Pilger laments the Vietnamese government’s abandonment of collectivised agriculture in the 1980s. You would have to search very hard through the villages of Vietnam and through to the most hard core Communist cadres to find someone to support Pilger’s position on this. Rural and city dwelling Vietnamese have vivid memories of the total breakdown in the food supply that followed collectivisation (there was plenty of corrupt distribution also). Starvation was rampant and even those in there mid to late twenties in modern Vietnam remember!

The other grievous distortion is Pilger’s obliviousness to the extraordinary positive energy of Vietnam. Vietnam’s story is one of tragedy and determined recovery. The recovery is imperfect of course. But to spend time in contemporary Vietnam and not be swept up in the positive energy of the place requires the most dogged war correspondent nostalgia. I have seen it frequently in Vietnam with war correspondents.

Pilger’s approach to the world has won him a legion of admirers in Australia and abroad. I still agree with a good many of the positions he puts on many issues. The problem is that his approach can only reinforce existing entrenched opinion. His style and discipline will never open any closed minds. He’s like an aged rock star belting out the tunes that made him famous to his old fans – but unable to reach out to a different audience. And surely the different audience is the one that really matters?

Monday 19 March 2007


The lack of depth and highly partisan nature of Australia's Iraq discussion reflects poorly on our media and our democracy

Last week I watched the PBS Iraq war documentary, “The Dark Side”. With a particular focus on Vice President Cheney, the programme looked in detail at the use of the attacks of September 11 to build the case for the disastrous war in Iraq. It was amazing viewing, especially in light of the seniority and credibility of those in the defense and intelligence establishments who chose to speak out about their experiences and in some cases contributions to the Iraq war debacle and the lies upon which it was built.

Bob Woodward’s book State Of Denial is similarly remarkable in its detail and its sources. The picture of deceit, arrogance and incompetence Woodward paints is astonishing. What is also incredible is the depth of the sources. These are not partisan Democrats, New York Times liberals or any of the usual bogeymen. They are mostly senior Defense (including former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld) and Intelligence personnel or White House insiders. Their credentials are impeccable.

There are now dozens of serious films and books on the Bush administration’s deceit and incompetence in Iraq. The electoral consequences of this outpouring and introspection by both those associated with the war and its opponents took its toll in November’s congressional elections. State Of Denial must have helped put the final nails in Donald Rumsfeld’s coffin also.

Diverse views on the Iraq conflict coexist in the Republican Party, the Democrat Party, the US right and the liberal left.

Australia is a key member of the alliance that elected to wage war in Iraq. So where are the books and documentaries about the incompetence and deceit that led us into the war? Where are the senior military and defence officials that feel sick with their involvement? Where are the senior members of the Liberal government who think it’s time there was some honesty in the discussion of why Australian soldiers were sent to Iraq four years ago?

Australians have been opposed to the Iraq War from the outset. If our politicians are able to take cover from the absence of Australian combat casualties, they should be forced to account for Iraq’s downward spiral into violence, hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths, the creation of an al Qaeda hothouse, an emboldened Iran and a rallying call for terrorists the world over.

Both the United States and the United Kingdom have endured painful introspection over the Iraq war and especially the decisions that led to the conflict. Australia’s debate has been far less far reaching. Australia is weaker for the low quality of our Iraq debate and less likely to learn the painful lessons that Americans and Britons are now all too conscious of. Australia’s media has a lot to answer for.


Brian Toohey seems alone as an Australian journalist who has sought to unravel the inside story of the Howard government’s short cuts to war. His most recent piece in the AFR March 17 – “Howard’s choice: when to recall troops” and a similar piece this time last year, stand out.

For a glimpse of the The Dark Side documentary, click here

Tuesday 13 March 2007


The Murdoch press's Australian flagship is in election mode

The Weekend Australian has assumed its non-too subtle election posture during the past fortnight. A similar position was assumed prior to the last election. The paper’s opinion writers are not only almost unanimously supportive of the coalition. They seem to be strategic campaign partners.

And so we’re off again.

Perhaps the most outrageous piece was a front page leader on March 3. It ran “Hicks ‘al Qaeda’s 24 carat golden boy”. The message was clear. And the millions of people who read the headline that Saturday but never even purchased the paper let alone read the story, carry it with them. Problem was that the story leader and the story content were profoundly different. The piece went on to tell of how Feroz Habbasi, a former Al Qaeda operative and Guantanamo Bay inmate had retracted all of his statement about Hicks including the ’24 carat claim’.

Just imagine your own name or perhaps that of Mr Murdoch or Chris Mitchell (Editor in Chief of the Oz) in a front page leader in The Australian - Mr ‘select name’ serial 'select crime' only to read the article to discover an untested and since retracted claim was the basis for the leader. And then you have a sense of editorial standards Murdoch / Mitchell style.

So was this just sloppy leader writing or something more sinister? Read the Australian for a few weeks and judge for yourself.

David Hicks is clearly an issue of deep concern to the Government. You don’t ignore an issue for five years only to champion it with vigour unless the electoral alarm bells are ringing. And who benefits from the airing of untested claims about Hicks and his Al Qaeda activities?

Whatever Hicks’s crimes, he deserves a proper trial.

Not all of the Australian’s opinion writers are in the conservative camp of course. Philip Adams clearly is not. Matt Price would seem to have progressive sympathies but is more cynical than anything else. Paul Kelly can come down on either side. Noel Pearson’s views fall in and outside both camps.

What distinguishes Shanahan, Sheridan, Albrechtsen, Pearson (Christopher) et. al. from those listed above is their ubiquity in column inches, the rabidity of their views and their almost totally dependable political partisanship.

Philip Adams may be the most “liberal” of The Australian’s commentators but he can’t be depended on by Labor or anybody else to sing to the prevailing ALP chorus. Same for the rest.

The Conservative chorus joins Howard in perfect pitch – almost without exception. How dreary. Don’t listen to me. Read them and judge for yourself.

Gerard Henderson and others frequently lament the failure of conservative commentary to penetrate in Australia. Of course the shock jocks penetrate but it's difficult to find penetrating conservative opinion writing. If conservative writers could decouple from the Howard government and stand up for conservative issues, we’d all be better off.

Thursday 1 March 2007


Kevin Rudd's foreign policy views are very persuasive. He's overlooked one issue though.

Kevin Rudd’s willingness to sit by the computer and put some substance to the soundbites is a welcome development. His piece on Christianity and politics in The Monthly was a good read that ruffled the Abbott feathers no end.

His latest foray in The Diplomat magazine is another good read.

Rudd accuses the Howard government of being driven by political battles and lax on policy. He writes “ history will record the Howard government as one of the laziest governments since Joe Lyons was prime minister in the 1930s – a government of politics first and foremost and of policy last and least.”

Rudd then sets out to draw clear distinctions between the government and Labor on foreign policy issues. On the US alliance, he supports a strong alliance but one with a capacity for differences. On multilateralism – he laments Howard’s obsessive bilateralism and proposes a course of “middle power diplomacy” where Australian influence in international bodies such as the UN can be strengthened. On Asia he proposes a concerted push to make Australia an insider in regional groupings. He views the Pacific as a notable failure of the Howard government and proposes less paternalism and more investment in the development of educational, cultural and economic ties in addition to the current military and policing roles.

It’s a persuasive piece indeed.

But its failure to present a Labor view on the Middle East and especially Israel was remarkable. The Howard government’s lockstep position with the US administration in support for Israel has distinguished Australia from an international community that, whilst largely supportive of Israel’s right to exist, is increasingly uncomfortable with Israel’s actions.

How does Kevin Rudd view Australia’s position as one of the Israeli government’s most unquestioning allies? How does this position play out in the Middle East, with our most important neighbour Indonesia, and in our own Middle Eastern community? Does it accurately represent our democratic and human rights based traditions? Does it serve our security interests?

It would be hard to argue that these issues are not amongst the highest of Australia’s strategic priorities. Why then did Kevin Rudd’s lengthy piece not reference them?