This article was first published in The Militant newspaper on February 12, 1993. The interview was carried out by Tony Cross.
John Pilger is one of the best-known journalists in the English-speaking world. Since the 1960s he has written and broadcast on hundreds of issues ranging from the British miners to the Vietnam war.
His work has often been controversial and that’s not surprising. Pilger isn’t one of those journalists who tells you all’s for the best in the free-market world. He’s unashamedly left-wing.
Last July, when Scottish Militant Tommy Sheridan ended a jail sentence earned when fighting the poll tax, John Pilger interviewed him for the New Statesman.
“Long ago Tommy Sheridan would have embodied everything. that inspired the Labour Party,” Pilger wrote. “…Compare his speaking up for people with Labour’s current waffle about ‘image’ and ‘electable strategies’ and ‘socialism empowering the individual’.”
I talked to him just before Christmas  and asked him why his articles differed so much from the usual press coverage of Labour.
“Well, I’d followed the purges in Labour Party,” he said. “But my interest was heightened considerably when the Brighton Labour Party got in touch with me, particularly a woman called Jean Calder who herself is under threat of expulsion.
“That brought it home that although Militant was the designated target, it was really being put forward as a bogey and the target was much wider.”
In Brighton people are being purged just for supporting anti-poll tax federation or opposing the Gulf War.
“I looked at Coventry and the way Terry Fields and Dave Nellist were treated. I tried to pick up a representative national picture of how the purge was conducted.
“And it was clear that in many areas people who have absolutely nothing to do with Militant being expelled.”
Does that mean it’s OK to get rid of Militant but not other left-wingers?
“No, not at all. I don’t want that suggested. I believe that people who support Militant follow a tradition of dissent within an organisation and have as much right to their views as anybody.
“It’s like saying: ‘It’s alright, you don’t have to shoot them, they’re not communists.’ Communists also have a right not to be shot.”
Destroying a Party
The premise for the purge, he said, was that Militant is a dangerous entryist organisation that has undermined the Labour Party.
“That premise is just not true. If the Labour Party’s not strong enough to incorporate a variety of group, Militant included, within structure than it’s not a genuine mass-movement party.
Pilger sees the purges as a product of the Labour leaders’ politics. In the 80s, he says, the party became completely dominated by the Manifesto Group and virtual co-thinkers of the SDP.
“That is a form of entryism. But it’s not the form of entryism we’re being asked to purge.”
He says that this trend has all but destroyed the party as a popular movement and compares the Labour leaders’ strategy to the Daily Mirror’s attempts to fight the Sun by copying it – destroying its own identity while only creating a bad imitation.
The Militant demon
In the New Statesman he attacked the Labour leaders for abandoning even the pretence of opposing the Tories and for becoming “an enfeebled component of rotting system”.
This is the end result of a history of “collaboration and surrender”, which has meant Labour governments swapping a few reforms for a “contract that made it possible for the powerless and the poor to for the powerless to consent to be governed”.
Scathing stuff – and very different to the usual media view that witch-hunts made Labour electable, despite fairly crushing evidence to the contrary.
I asked John Pilger why this was so. He seemed a little impatient with me for asking such an obyious question.
“Well, you know, it’s fairly self-evident. The media is anti-socialist and is in many ways an extension of the state, and extension of the body politic. It reflects the views of its proprietors but then the views of its proprietors those of the state.
“I don’t see any real surprise in that and I think it’s probably best that people who feel they’re outside the propaganda sphere of the press stop wringing their hands about it. To expect these institutions to behave differently is naiveté in the extreme.”
Fair enough. But why did journalists not even credit anti-poll tax leaders when they got information from them?
“Well, they weren’t allowed to, probably. To cast Militant in a favourable light, to remove it from its demon category, is really unacceptable.
The Scottish model
John Pilger is impressed by the achievements of Scottish Militant Labour, which he sees as having moved out of “siege polities’’ – merely defending itself from other people’s attacks – : and into the community.
“Militant in England must look to Scotland with some envy. People elect it. It campaigns on community issues; it’s accepted by the community. Tommy Sheridan’s base is in his community.”
But, I point out, Militant was very involved with the fight against the poll tax.
“It was, that’s right. But that wasn’t going to be acknowledged, was it?
“My only association with your organisation is to defend its right be part of the body politic. So I’m really not in a position to criticise as such. If you take an aggressive stand towards the establishment, good for you!
“In following the Scottish model of Militant, that is a model of more involvement in the community, it’s clearly going to spread the base of any organisation.
“Now I don’t know whether you’re doing that or not but you did it, as you would point out, with the anti-poll tax campaign and that clearly is what socialist politics should be about.
Government of corruption
After all he’d said an about the media, I asked him how he manages to get away with writing what he does.
“It’s very difficult. But I’ve been doing it for a long time and I’ve learnt how to navigate. I also have of working professionally, that is I hope my work is accepted for its professional approach as much as for what it’s saying. If I produced, as I’m accused of doing, polemics then I wouldn’t get on television.”
In his latest book, Distant Voices, Pilger comments on how a consensus is manufactured on issues such as the Gulf War and the virtues of a ‘free market’, squeezing out nearly all controversy about them.
“During the Gulf War the media overwhelmingly supported the state; editors went willingly to the Ministry of Defence to effectively collude in denying information to the public.
“You now have a government that’s quite manifestly corrupt and lying. But you have an opposition that is not opposing.
“These are now matters of high public interest. I think the consciousness of the public has been raised dramatically in the last two months; the demonstrations in October indicated that.”
Understandably, his frustration with the Labour and TUC leaders has boiled over on this issue.
“The spontaneous demonstrations in October were not like anything seen in this country since the general strike,” he wrote in the New Statesman.
“If eight million can take part in a general strike in Italy, often in defiance of their trade union aristocracy, something similar can happen here.”
He is indignant that “the incoherent Norman Willis” ruled out strike action to defend the pits.
The socialist message
So John Pilger’s still taking an aggressive stand towards the establishment. And not just in Britain.
Has been working on a documentary for Central TV on Cambodia, a subject that has earned him awards and vilification for his criticisms of Western policy there. Does he think the imperial powers are sitting pretty as we go into a new century?
“Oh, the New World Order is powerful but it’s not stable. That’s why there have to demonstration-runs like sending 30,000 marines to Somalia to re-establish American power in the vacuum that exists.
“There are trade wars looming over the horizon, so America remains a military superpower and has to demonstrate that from time to time. That in my opinion is one of the main reasons for the Gulf war.”
But he is encouraged by mass movements in countries like the Philippines, where he says there’s as much potential for change as in Vietnam after the Second World War.
So he isn’t joining the people who’ve given up on socialism?
“No, because most of the people in the world practise it, not in a structured ideological way but have worked out that the only way for everybody to live decently is in socialist communities and that’s what the poorest of the world teach the rest.”
But, as he points out, that is in a world dominated by forces such as the international financial institutions. And they’ve got a bit of a habit of snuffing out anything that threatended their power haven’t they?
“They’ve got a habit of snuffing it out, that’s true, but it’s interesting the way it comes back. It may not be running a country, a nation state, but it certainly exists in people’s aspirations, in their hearts and often in their communities.
“I believe that the great phenomenon of resistance and change just doesn’t stop.”