Multi-Emmy-award-winning filmmaker John Pilger is among the most important political filmmakers and investigative reporters of the 20 and 21st century. From Vietnam to Palestine to atomic war, Pilger’s work has been on the cutting edge, and his stinging critique of Western media has always been revelatory and spot on. Indeed, his biting analysis is more relevant and important now than ever. His film, “The Coming War on China powerfully sets out the growing potential for war between the U.S. and China. And his film released last year, “The Dirty War on the NHS” of Great Britain couldn’t be more timely, in the age of COVID-19.
I spoke with John Pilger in London on September 12, in response to the case of investigative reporter and Wikileaks publisher Julian Assange, a close friend of Pilger’s, who was back in a British court last week. Assange is currently fighting extradition to the US, where he is facing a 175 year jail sentence for alleged espionage.
Dennis J Bernstein: It is good of you to join us John Pilger. American prosecutors have indicted Julian Assange on 18 counts of espionage. They want him to serve 175 years in a US prison. He’s 50 years old, so that means they want him to die in jail. What is so dangerous to the Americans about Julian Assange?
John Pilger: Well, he’s very dangerous. He exposes what governments – the crimes of governments, the crimes that we the people know very little about. And in this case, he has revealed the unerring, relentless war crimes of the U.S. government, especially in the post-9/11 period. That’s his crime. There are so many ironies to this, Dennis. Assange is more than a whistleblower. He’s a truth teller and as the so-called corporate media is now committed almost entirely to propaganda, the truth that he tells is simply intolerable, unforgivable. He – for example, he – Wikileaks exposed something those of us who have reported America’s wars already know about, and that is the homicidal nature of these wars, the way the United States has exported the homicide that so consumes much of U.S. society, the way that it’s exported it to other countries, the relentless killing of civilians.
The video, “Collateral Murder”, in which an Apache helicopter crew guns down civilians, including journalists, in Baghdad, with the crew laughing and mocking the suffering and death beneath them was not something that will be unique. All of us who have reported – let’s say America’s colonial wars had stories of that kind of thing happening. But Assange had evidence, and that’s – and that was his other crime. His evidence is authentic. All the disclosures of Wikileaks are authentic. That makes it very different from other kinds of journalism, which – some are authentic, but some are not. That’s just the way it goes. But all of Wikileaks disclosures are authentic. They are coming from within a system and all of that has really shaken, I think, the inner core of the national security establishment in the United States. And nothing is being spared, to get hold of Assange and put him away.
Bernstein: And that is very troubling to those of us who really consider ourselves journalists. We know that U.S.authorities allege that Assange conspired with U.S. Army Intelligence Analyst Chelsea Manning. Manning spent a lot of time in jail, in solitary and she is back in jail again. They’re going’ after her and him. Really, the point that you make about collateral murder, some would say he released important secrets of the United States. Others would say he told the truth about a country called the United States, engaged in mass murder.
Pilger: Well, these revelations give us more than a glimpse of the sociopathic nature of the way the United States conducts itself around the world. You know, many people are shocked by the behavior of Donald Trump, but they really wouldn’t – shouldn’t be shocked. Well, yes, they should be shocked. They – but they shouldn’t be surprised, because Trump’s behavior has been the behavior of his predecessors over many years. The difference is that Trump is a caricature of the system. And so, he’s much easier to identify, much easier to loathe, I suppose [laughs], certainly much easier to understand. It makes it all very simple and simplistic, but it’s rather more complicated than that.
The evidence that Wikileaks produced was long before Trump, and it’s – we now know, of course, that Afghanistan has been a killing field for the United States and its so-called allies since 2001. I mean, there was a report you may have seen, just recently, by Brown University, Professor David Vine, at the Watson Institute at Brown, I know David, where this study estimates that some 37 million people – that’s equivalent to the entire population of Canada – have been forced to flee their home country by the actions of the United States. He says this is a very conservative figure, that the numbers of these displaced peopleis probably in the region of between 48 and 59 people [sic]. They estimate that 9.2 million people and 7.1 million people in Syria have been displaced.
Now, the numbers of deaths – and again, they emphasize how conservative this finding is, is something like 12 million. This carnage has been going on for a very long time, but Professor Vine and his researchers are only referring to the period since 9/11, the so-called war on terror, which, of course, has been a war of terror all that time, as his findings demonstrate. And Wikileaks’ findings really complement these facts, and we’re talking of facts here. This isn’t an opinion. These things have happened. These people have been forced out of their homes. Their societies have been destroyed. Untold numbers have been probably sent out of their mind, and many, many people are grieving the loss of loved ones because of these actions.
So, Wikileaks has given us that truth, and really, Julian Assange has performed a quite remarkable public service in letting us know – he’s let – he’s letting us know how governments lie to us, how our governments lie to us, not the official enemies, although Wikileaks, of course, has released hundreds of thousands of documents, secret documents from Russia and China and other countries. But it’s really those countries in the West that we regard as our countries that matter most. He’s forced us – what he – he’s forced us to look in the mirror. That has been his extraordinary contribution and – to true enlightenment of Western societies. And for that, he’s paying a very high price…
He’s told us the truth, in other words. He is shining the light on all corruption in the world…’ Wikileaks has given us insights. Wikileaks has allowed us to see how governments operate in secret, behind their backs. I mean, that is such an essential part of any true democracy that really there’s no discussion about. It should be just part of it. But we’ve reached a stage in the 21st century where the formal democracies have changed character to such a degree.
I don’t know, really, what they’ve become, but they’re certainly not democracies, where almost every day they invent a new law that is designed to suppress truth or make what they do even more secretive. And that’s – that’s earned him the – curiously, but I suppose understandably, if you’re a psychiatrist, that’s earned him the animosity of many journalists, because he shamed journalism for not doing the job, for not telling us.
Bernstein: What’s your best understanding of how Julian is doing, and please talk a little bit about why he is in court now, and about the process?
Pilger: Well, this is the continuation of the extradition hearing, which is going at an agonizingly slow pace. And it began in February, and it picked up again on Monday…Several of the defense witnesses have been – have been very impressive. Clive Stafford Smith, the – who has – is an American lawyer but also a British lawyer. He practice – can practice in both countries. And he founded the organization, Reprieve, and he has had a lot to do with helping people in Guantanamo.
And he was describing to the court the importance of Wikileaks’ revelations about Guantanamo, how Wikileaks had shone a light on the whole dark corner that was Guantanamo. And he was describing the positive impact of that. There’s been argument about – what has come through, what is clear, is that many senior Department of Justice officials did not want to carry through this prosecution. Assange was never prosecuted during Obama’s time, because Obama understood very clearly that if Assange was prosecuted, then the knock-on effect would be that those media institutions, such as the New York Times, which had carried Wikileaks revelations, would have to be prosecuted as well. And I’m sure not for any principal reason, but for his own political reasons, he decided – the administration decided not to go that far.
It is the Trump administration that has decided to go that far, because Trump is clearly – well, he’s declared that he’s at war with the American media. He called them enemies of the people, and – for his own reasons. I mean, there are no argued principal reasons. There are plenty [laughs] – plenty of reasons to be critical of the media. But Trump’s quite different from that. And undoubtedly Wikileaks has been swept up in this personal war that Trump is conducting – Trump and his cronies are conducting against the media. People like Pompeo, I mean, Pompeo has really — swore publicly that he would be going after Julian Assange, in so many words. He was rather angry when he was Director of the CIA that Wikileaks leaked files known as Vault 7, and Vault 7 was the CIA files that really told us how the CIA spy on us and can spy on us through our television sets. And so, there’s no question Julian Assange has made real enemies among these people, and they’re very extreme people. And their – though their indictment reflects their – almost their desperation, because most of the so-called charges are to do with espionage. So, journalism is reclassified by the Trump administration as espionage, and they’re using a 1917 Espionage Act that was brought in during the First World War to silence peace activists, who didn’t want the United States to join Europe in the First World War.
That’s how desperate they are. They’ve had to reach back more than a century and defy the Constitution, which, of course, allows the publication – the free publication of leaks and documents. But they are defying that and ignoring it. And so far, they’re getting away with it. The truth is, Dennis, that this ordeal that Julian Assange is going through day after day in a court where the whole atmosphere is not of due process but of due revenge and bias, he’s – he’s going through this because those who have political power regard a political enemy. It’s a completely lawless approach. It has nothing to do with the law.
And the truth is that these so-called – these espionage charges and all the rest of these frankly ridiculous indictments would’ve been thrown out on the first day of any legitimate court hearing or would never have got to court, in the first place. I’ve sat in a number of courts over the years. I’ve never heard anything like these. There’s a kind of – it’s like Alice’s tea party, you know, they’re mad. But they’re very serious.
Bernstein: I think where US journalists fail most is their ignorance around foreign policy, context, and history. You know, the genius in American foreign policy is Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, who knows very little about a lot. But I want to – I mean, for instance, this fantasy story that came up about the Russians paying the Taliban to kill Americans.
Pilger: Yeah, Dennis, and the – the Russians stole the election from Hilary Clinton and Saddam Hussein really did have weapons of mass destruction, and so on and so on.It’s just fantasy. There’s nothing – I find there is absolutely nothing to be believed now…. Fantasy: A Russian politician, a very unsavory character he is, too; he’s not an opposition leader, is miraculously poisoned with Novichok, made in the former Soviet Union and miraculously spirited into Berlin, where the German doctors contradict the Russian doctors and say that he was poisoned. I mean, [laughs] you know, anything can be made up now. I mean, it always made up, in one sense. You know, I – I think I was self-taught that you never believed anything that – well, you never believe anything, until it was officially denied. That was the famous maxim of great Irish muckraker Claude Cockburn. But you never believed anything that had intelligent sources as its legitimacy. You dismissed it. A real journalist dismissed it.
Now, all this nonsense is – is all over front pages and spoken with such hysterical certainty on the TV news.
This is government propaganda on steroids, at the moment. I mean, they laugh at Trump, but I mean, in a way, quite separately, the media is a propaganda vehicle is well and truly past Trump, in its in the power of its fantasies.
Bernstein: Finally, John, you know, in the current context of politics and the presidential election, you’ve got both sides smashing China, blaming China, sort of setting us up for that 21st-century war that you warned us about in “The Coming War on China”. Your thoughts on what’s coming up here.
Pilger: Well, I’m sorry that film of four years ago seems to have been prescient. The Trump administration is so obsessed with China. And so, when I spoke of fantasies before, we now have China fantasies, day after day. Now, but what this is doing is creating a state of almost – not quite yet, but it’s getting there, a state of siege in China. And they are very hurriedly putting up the ramparts, their defenses. They’re developing some extremely effective maritime missiles, and they’re changed their – as I understand it, they’ve changed their nuclear posture from low alert to high alert. They’re doing all sorts of things they had no intention of doing, when I was there four years ago. Then, they were bemused [laughs].
Now, I think they’re genuinely worried, and they’re moving quickly to prepare – to – in preparing to defend themselves. That’s a situation when mistakes and accidents can happen, and these are nuclear powers.
People have to understand that propaganda has – is lethal. It’s lethal in many ways, but it can be literally lethal. It can create the conditions that lead to war. And I think that’s a possibility, at the moment. It hasn’t – it hasn’t happened yet, but the risks are now far more numerous, and they come day after day.
Bernstein: Finally, do – what’s your sense of how Julian is doing, personally? Is he hanging on? What’s the situation? What do we know about the physical stuff?
Pilger: Well, he’s certainly hanging on. He looks like he’s put on a little more weight, which is good news. But he has – still has an untreated lung condition. He’s managing to survive in a prison where there have been COVID cases and at least one COVID death. But the thing about Julian is his resilience, for me. I mean, there are lots of interesting sides to the man, but his resilience is probably [laughs] the most extraordinary, how he keeps going. But he is. And – but he is still only one human being, and the pressures of this show trial, this squalid show trial and all the sordid events that led up to it, he is an innocent man. His only crime is journalism.
Bernstein: His only crime is journalism. And what’s at stake, if he loses? If Julia Assange is sent to jail for the rest of his life for committing the act of journalism. Do we lose, here in the United States, the First Amendment? What’s at stake?
Pilger: What’s at stake? Well, what’s at stake, first of all, is justice for this – for this person, this one heroic individual. But on a wider sense, what is at stake is – is freedom. And I don’t really say immediately. It’s quite – even among those who support Julian and campaign for him, but freedom of the press is at stake.
Well, I don’t think there is any free press. So, I’m not sure that that’s at stake, because it doesn’t exist, certainly not in the mainstream. But I think the freedom of those exceptional journalists, and that’s – they represent the free press, those principled mavericks who have nothing to do with the Guardian or the New York Times or any of these institutions.
I think they’re – the whole principle of their right to be free journalists is at stake. Certainly, above all that, is the right of all of us to live in free societies and to know – to call to account great power, to know what it does. They’re very basic freedoms at stake, here.