Lachlan R Dale

Smoke Signal: John Pilger – You lost my respect @ FODI

Image: AFP PHOTO/Leon Neal

Choosing the John Pilger talk as his annual trip to FODI last weekend, Lachlan R Dale left with a bitter taste in his mouth and not much respect for Pilger himself.


Last weekend I attended the Festival of Dangerous Ideas (FODI).

It’s become something of a habit to spend a day or two lazing in the sun alongside Sydney Harbour to attend a few talks. The quality varies wildly. Some talks fall short, but there is usually at least one session that justifies my attendance (that was John Safran Foer in 2011, and Sam Harris in 2012).

This year I gambled on John Pilger’s session. Entitled “Breaking Australia’s Silence”, the talk promised a discussion on elevating the profile of important issues affecting Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia – commendable stuff.

I knew a little about Pilger. I’d read The Secret Country a few years back and listened to Pilger’s Sydney Peace Prize Lecture with interest. While I appreciated his passion for digging up our sordid treatment of Australia’s First Peoples, I had reservations about his meta-analysis.

The talk was straight forward enough. Pilger did what he usually does: grand-standing and making bold, dramatic pronouncements while sidelining all nuance. He’s a polarising figure, and his rhetoric tends to be rather extreme.

He returned multiple times to the theme of the “Political Class” preparing us for another war in Iraq, tying it into his overarching theme of “The People vs The Political Establishment” (featuring “The Evil Murdoch Empire”). He championed citizen media, urging us to think for ourselves, and to actively participate in the political process. Sound advice, to be sure.

Still, I had reservations. My impression was that he sounded more like a populist politician than a straight-shooting journalist. Something rang hollow.

Then came question time.

The first came from a young man, who challenged Pilger’s black-and-white analysis of the threat of the Islamic State in Iraq.

It went something like:

“I appreciate that the last Iraq war was a mistake, and what you say about the West causing a lot of chaos in the Middle East. Still, don’t we have a moral duty to stop the Islamic State committing genocide?”

A sound question, and one that penetrated to the core of the conflict between ideology and practical action.

Pilger’s response was sickening. He immediately went on the attack:

“What do you know of the beheadings of Aboriginal people here in Australia?”

It seems beside the point really. The crowd stirred uneasily. A few people murmured in acknowledgement of such a poignant statement.

“Seven hundred thousand dead in Iraq. And you call that ‘a mistake’?”

The questioner tried to reply that Pilger was kind of missing the point (and that he was against the last Iraq war), but the host quickly moved onto another question.

A few minutes later a young woman thankfully called Pilger out for his contemptuous deflection, requesting he actually answer the question and noting that he sounded “more like a politician” than a journalist. A few in the audience applauded.

Pilger became very visibly aggressive towards the young woman. He inarticulately outlined that if the West wants to regain any credibility it must cease its destabilising secret operations and work with the international community to provide whatever humanitarian aid it can across the world. I take his point, but I expect it would be received pretty coldly by Yazidi facing the prospect of a massacre at the hands of the brutal Islamic State.

This is the yawning void between theory and reality.

More importantly, the aggressive disrespect he showed these two questioners left a bitter taste in my mouth. How can this man grandly advocate for free speech, independent thought, free inquiry and the challenging of those in power if he cannot even front some simple, direct and non-leading questions from his own audience?

Those that listen to him speak are not idiots, and he should not behave like a petulant child when they challenge his world view.

John Pilger – for your performance on Sunday you should be ashamed.

You do yourself, and the causes you champion an injustice.

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  1. Lachlan R. Dale said:

    I note an email in my inbox this morning from Human Rights Watch, expanding on research concerning mass executions by Islamic State in Tikrit.

    The violence in Iraq concerns me, as it does in the Central African Republic, South Sudan, West Papua, Palestine, Libya and various other conflict zones across the world (to say nothing about the situation in Thailand… well really this listing could go on forever).

    Reconciling that concern and empathy for human suffering with Pilger’s worldview is difficult, because it effectively paralyses any sort of response from ‘The West’ until a massive and magical change in global geo-politics takes place.

    Addressing what practical and immediate steps can be made (realistically – not theoretically) to alleviate human suffering is extremely difficult. Pilger might be look at the long game, but for those suffering now and today his grand words aren’t of much use.

    I appreciate your discreditation of myself and the questioners though. Attacks ad hominem are far easier than actually engaging with nightmarishly difficult problems. We all want vast simplifications to wrap arms around us and keep us warm and safe from the infinite complexity of the world.

    To me, Pilger seems to offer exactly this: a black and white world view – The Political Class versus The Noble Citizenry; the battle between True Good and True Evil. While there might be some usefulness in such a perspective, to me it ultimately rings hollow. To someone engaged daily in issues of human rights, I find it little comfort.

  2. Lachlan R. Dale said:

    So his inability to answer a direct question, and his inability to back up the very values he so grandly espoused throughout the talk was because he was bored?

    That doesn’t seem like a particularly good explaination (though it would be on par with the level of reasoning expressed on the night).

    If Pilger believed ALL of Islamic State coverage in Iraq is a Evil Empire / media conspiracy, then he should have answered the question as such.

    I mean, it’s lovely Pilger has all this Chomsky-esque high level theory – just lovely. That doesn’t excuse him from the necessity of answering questions from his audience; it doesn’t allow him to behave like a child; and it certainly doesn’t carry if he considers himself a journalist. It wasn’t exactly a masterful display, and for people still forming an opinion about him and his work, it did him no favours.

    “Challenge power and think for yourself – just don’t question me” seemed to be the message.

    His teachings and work I will largely leave aside, but I do not think the overall intellectual content of his talk was particularly impressive.

    What I have outlined above demonstrates poor form for a ‘journalist’, and hypocracy. You defend him with similar deflections and non-sequitors. I guess I should be thankful we’re at least we’re being consistent.

  3. Di said:

    I think those questions were fairly reductionist and at least a bit boring, and if I were someone with that many decades of experience as Pilger I probably would have become frustrated too. I’d especially become frustrated if the entire merit of my (decades) of (challenging) work was discredited in a live setting based on one rhetorical deflection (boring). The people asking the questions were certainly not having any ‘dangerous’ ideas, instead choosing to parrot equally as one dimensional slapdash opinions on topical issues that this person probably has no real knowledge about.

  4. Lachlan R. Dale said:

    It was interesting Tom. I’m not sure what I expected exactly.

    There was something surreal about sitting in the Sydney Opera House and listening to these two girls who were in a horrific Russian prison just eight months ago. I liked that I was there to listen to them speak.

    The crowd was pretty sparse, and full of young kids with punk/anarchist vibes. They spoke in Russian most of the time, so it was very hard to have a tight or meaningful dialog. Some of the detail about prison conditions were interesting, but really I found much more out about that from Nadya’s letter.

    They spoke very broadly about everyone needing to challenge conservative governments everywhere, and how easily those governments can become tyrannical (they compared our detention centres to Russian prisons; I don’t really think that comparison is completely accurate). They mentioned they were no longer focusing on art and music, but on NGO and legal work to fight against Putin. There were some interesting little asides about the social climate in Russia.

    Overall, however, I’d have to say the content was lacking intellectually (I have a bit to do with human rights, so I am a little wary of populism). Having a translator also really disturbed the depth and flow of the session. Still it was an interesting experience. They are very strong women.

  5. Lachlan R. Dale said:

    I should add I also attended a few other talks.

    Steven Pinker’s theory/assertion that many forms of violence have declined across civilisation over the centuries was very engaging. I’ll be picking up his book and reading a bit more about the debate around his data-set.

    Seeing Pussy Riot was a surreal and curious experience (it wasn’t a talk I picked personally). I would have loved to have seen Salman Rushdie speak, but I was otherwise engaged.

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