Salman Rushdie once said of John Pilger: “He is a photographer using words instead of a camera.”
Rushdie isn’t alone. Noam Chomsky, Harold Pinter and Martha Gellhorn are among the notable figures that have praised his tenacious work as an investigative journalist and documentary film-maker during a career spanning more than 50 years.
During this time he has repeatedly tried to shine a light on injustices in the world and has covered numerous epoch-making events. He marched with America’s poor from Alabama to Washington, following the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 and was in the same room when presidential candidate Robert Kennedy was assassinated that same year.
The Australian-born journalist arrived in the UK in the early 60s and later joined the Daily Mirror where he became chief foreign correspondent. He covered the Vietnam War and reported from Cambodia in the aftermath of the overthrow of Pol Pot’s bloody regime and more recently was a vocal opponent of the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Tonorrow night he’s in Sheffield, for the Off The Shelf Festival, where he will be talking about his career and a new version of The New Rulers of the World. The book, which first came out in 2002, has been updated with Pilger taking aim at what he sees as the clandestine use of propaganda in the world today.
In an interview with The Yorkshire Post, he said: “Propaganda is the most powerful, insidious force in those societies, like ours, where open coercion doesn’t work. Propaganda is like an invisible authority, relayed through incessantly repeated assumptions, cliches and half-truths in the media and as censorship by omission.
“In a sense, the more media there is, the more propaganda there is. Most mainstream political news works to the agenda of Whitehall and Westminster. Developments outside that sphere are usually left out.”
It can be argued this so-called “propaganda” is beginning to fall on deaf ears as a groundswell of angry populism rises up around the world. “The problem is less ‘angry populism’ than a dangerous status quo. The present administration in the United States is drawing the world to the brink of a war with Russia, a nuclear-armed power,” he says.
“The greatest build-up of Nato military forces on Russia’s western borders since World War Two has been barely mentioned in the US election campaign, except - ironically - by Donald Trump who says he doesn’t want a conflict with Russia.
“The ‘angry populism’ reflects people’s disenchantment with elite politics that pay only lip service to actual democracy. That’s true all over the world, especially in the US and Britain; the Brexit vote was a striking example of people rejecting politics they perceived as offering them nothing.”
How such major epoch-making events are reported has changed enormously since he started out as a reporter, but he believes the function of journalism and its exponents is no less important than it was.
“The means may have changed, but the basic principles of real journalism haven’t. Real journalism has never been more important. I’m not referring to journalism that merely repeats the word of authority handed down from above, but that which is independent of all vested interests, including government.
“The great investigative reporter Claud Cockburn said, ‘Never believe anything until it’s officially denied.’ That ought to be scratched on the bathroom mirror of every young journalist.”
John Pilger is appearing at the Crucible Theatre on Thursday at 7.30pm. For more information call 0114 249 6000.