Australian-born John Pilger has worked for over five decades as a reporter and documentary film-maker covering wars and conflicts all over the world. In the following interview, the award-winning journalist says the world is arguably at a more perilous geopolitical juncture than even during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 at the height of the Cold War. This is because American “exceptionalism” – which, he points out, mirrors that of Nazi Germany – has developed into a hyper-rogue phase. The relentless denigration of Russia by American and Western media show that there are few red lines left to restrain aggression towards Moscow, as there were, at least, during the past Cold War. Russia and China’s refusal to bow down to Washington’s dictate is infuriating the would-be American hegemon and its desire for zero-sum world domination.
John Pilger also gives his wide-ranging views on the systematic deterioration of Western mainstream journalism which has come to function as a nakedly propaganda matrix for power and corporate profit. He further condemns the ongoing persecution and torture of fellow-Australian publisher Julian Assange who is being held in a maximum-security British prison commonly used for holding mass murderers and convicted terrorists. Assange is being persecuted for telling the truth and for exposing huge crimes by the US and Britain, says Pilger. It is a grim warning of a covert war that is being conducted against independent journalism and free speech, and, more ominously, indicative of a slide towards police-state fascism in so-called Western democracies.
Question: In your documentary film, The Coming War on China (2016), you assess that the United States is on a strategic collision path with China for control of Asia-Pacific. Do you still see the threat of war looming between these two powers?
John Pilger: The threat of war may not be immediate, but we know or should know that events can change fast: a chain of incidents and missteps can ignite a war which can spread unpredictably. The calculations are not in dispute: an “enemy” has barely 12 minutes to decide whether and where to order a nuclear retaliation.
Question: Recently, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused China of being “truly hostile to America’s interests”. What in your view is motivating US concerns about China?
John Pilger: The State Department once declared, “To seek less than preponderant power would be to opt for defeat.” At the root of much of humanity’s insecurity is, remarkably, the self-belief and self-delusion of one nation: the United States. America’s notion of itself is often difficult for the rest of us to comprehend. From the days of President Teddy Roosevelt, the “sacred mission” has been to dominate humanity and its vital resources, if not by intimidation and bribery then by violence. In the 1940s, American “war intellectuals”, such as the diplomat and historian George F Kennan, described the necessity of American dominance of the “Grand Area”, which is most of the world, notably Eurasia, and especially China. Non-Americans were to be cast in “our image”, wrote Kennan; America was the exemplar. Hollywood has reflected this with striking accuracy.
In 1945, this vision, or mania, was given a moral makeover with the defeat of Nazi Germany. Today, many Americans believe their country won the Second World War and that they are the “exceptional” human beings. This mythology (reminiscent of Nazi propaganda) has long had an evangelical hold in the US and is the central pillar of the need to dominate, which requires enemies and fear. America’s long history of racism towards Asia and its historic humiliation of the Chinese people make China a perfect fit as the current enemy.
I should add that “exceptionalism” is not only embraced by the American right. Although they may not admit it, many liberals believe it in it, as do those who describe themselves as “left”. It’s the spawn of the most rapacious ideology on earth: Americanism. That this word is rarely uttered is part of its power.
Question: Do you think it is a strange anomaly that the Trump administration has adopted an aggressive policy towards China, yet this American president appears to seek more friendly relations with Russia?
John Pilger: Dividing China and Russia with the aim of weakening both is a venerable American game. Henry Kissinger played it. As for Trump, it’s impossible to know what he thinks. Regardless of his overtures to Putin, the US has aggressively subverted Ukraine and militarized Russia’s western border and is a more immediate threat to Russia than it is to China.
Question: Do you think the impeachment process underway against Trump is tantamount to a coup to get rid of him by the Deep State because of his relatively benign stance towards Russia?
John Pilger: That’s one theory; I’m not so sure. Trump’s election in 2016 disturbed a Mafia-like system of tribal back-scratching, which the Democrats dominate. Hillary Clinton was the Chosen One; how dare Trump seize her throne. Many American liberals refuse to see their corrupt heroine as a standard bearer of Wall Street, a warmonger and an emblem of hi-jacked gender politics. Clinton is the embodiment of a venal system, Trump is its caricature.
Question: You have worked for over five decades as a war reporter and documentary film-maker in Vietnam, elsewhere in Asia, Africa and Latin America. How do you see current international tensions between the US, China and Russia? Do you think the danger of war is greater now than in previous times?
John Pilger: In 1962, we all may have been saved by the refusal of a Soviet naval officer, Vasili Arkhipov, to fire a nuclear torpedo at US ships during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Are we in greater danger today? During the Cold War, there were lines that the other side dared not cross. There are few if any lines now; the US surrounds China with 400 military bases and sails its low-draught ships into Chinese waters and flies its drones in Chinese airspace. American-led NATO forces mass on the same Russian frontier the Nazis crossed; the Russian president is insulted as a matter of routine. There is no restraint and none of the diplomacy that kept the old Cold War cold. In the West, we have acquiesced as bystanders in our own countries, preferring to look away (or at our smart phones) rather than break free of the post-modernism entrapping us with its specious “identity” distractions.
Question: You travelled extensively in the US during the Cold War years. You witnessed the assassination of presidential candidate Robert Kennedy in 1968. It seems the American Cold War obsession with “communism as an evil” has been replaced by an equally intense Russophobia towards modern-day Russia. Do you see a continuation in the phobia from the Cold War years to today? What accounts for that mindset?
John Pilger: The Russians refuse to bow down to America, and that is intolerable. They play an independent, mostly positive role in the Middle East, the antithesis of America’s violent subversions, and that is unbearable. Like the Chinese, they have forged peaceful and fruitful alliances with people all over the world, and that is unacceptable to the US Godfather. The constant defamation of all things Russian is a symptom of decline and panic, as if the United States has departed the 21st century for the 19th century, obsessed with a proprietorial view of the world. In the circumstances, the phobia you describe is hardly surprising.
Question: How has news journalism, specifically in Western states, changed over the course of your career? You have won multiple awards for your writing and film-making, yet today one rarely reads your articles published in mainstream media even though you are still actively working as a journalist as per your own website?
John Pilger: Journalism wasn’t corporate when I began. Most newspapers in Britain were a faithful reflection of the interests of what was known as the Establishment, but they could also be idiosyncratic. When I came to Fleet Street in London during the early 1960s, then known as the “Mecca of newspapers”, the times were optimistic and the most right-wing newspapers tolerated, even encouraged mavericks, who are often the best journalists. The Daily Mirror, then the biggest circulating newspaper on earth apart from the People’s Daily, was the soldiers’ paper during the Second World War and became, for millions of Britons, their paper. To those of us on the Mirror, it was something of an ideal to be the agents and defenders of people, not power.
Today, true mavericks are redundant in the mainstream media. Corporate public relations is the real force in modern journalism. Look at the way news is written: almost none of it is straight. I wrote for many years for the Guardian; my last piece was five years ago after which I received a phone call. I was purged, along with other independent writers. The Guardian now promotes fiction about Russia, obsessively, the interests of Britain’s intelligence services, Israel, the US Democratic Party, bourgeois gender imperatives and an unctuous view of itself. The paper’s witch-hunt against Julian Assange – part of a campaign which the UN Rapporteur on Torture refers to as “mobbing” – includes fabrication of a kind previously associated with the rightwing Murdoch press; certainly, its cruelty towards Assange is a profanity on the liberal values for which it claims to stand.
Question: You have been a prominent supporter of Julian Assange, the founding editor of WikiLeaks, who is currently imprisoned in Britain awaiting an extradition trial next year to the US on charges of espionage. What’s really behind the incarceration of Assange?
John Pilger: Julian Assange is what journalists should be and rarely are: he is a tireless, fearless truth-teller. He has exposed, on a vast scale, the secret, criminal life of great power: of “our” governments, their lying and violence in our name. Ten years ago, WikiLeaks leaked a British Ministry of Defense document that described investigative journalism as the greatest threat to secretive power. Investigative journalists were rated higher on the threat scale than “Russian spies” and “terrorists”. Assange and WikiLeaks can claim that laurel. If the Americans come for him and incarcerate him in a hell hole, they will come for others, including those journalists who simply do their job. And they will come for their editors and publishers too.
Question: You make the point that Assange shames the mainstream Western media because Wikileaks published damning information exposing huge war crimes committed by the US and its NATO allies in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, while the mainstream media ignored those crimes or give them relatively scant coverage. Does that explain why these media are ignoring Assange’s plight?
John Pilger: There is, at last, a growing realization that the gross injustice against Assange is likely to happen to others. The recent statement by Britain’s National Union of Journalists is a sign of change. The silence must be broken if journalists are to reclaim their honor.
Question: You have recently visited Assange in Britain’s maximum-security Belmarsh Prison where he is being held in solitary confinement. How would you describe his physical and mental condition? You say he is being subjected to a show-trial. Is his mistreatment comparable to what Western media would condemn as persecution under dictatorships?
John Pilger: Julian’s last court appearance on October 21 was effectively controlled by four Americans from the US Embassy who sat behind the prosecutor and passed their written instructions to him by hand. The judge watched this outrage and allowed it to continue. At the same time, she treated Julian’s lawyers with contempt. When Julian, who is ill, struggled to speak his name, she sneered. The difference from a Cold War show-trial was that this was not broadcast on state television; the BBC blacked it out.
Question: With the arrest of Julian Assange and other independent journalists like Max Blumenthal in the US who exposed Washington’s regime-change crimes in Venezuela, and given the silent indifference of Western media, do you think it is a real concern that the US is sliding towards police-state fascism?
John Pilger: Some would argue the slide has happened.