The only time that I met John Pilger in person was in 2018. I was invited to deliver a speech at the Parliament of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Among the large crowd were many that I knew and respected: a former foreign minister, socially conscious MPs, morally driven intellectuals and activists, and so on.
As I stood at the podium, glancing at the crowd, I saw John Pilger. He had a big smile on his face, as if in great anticipation of hearing me speak. To be honest, I would rather have listened to John than to lecture before him.
Growing up in a refugee camp in Gaza, we hardly ever linked Western media, intellectuals or journalists with telling the truth
As I expressed my many “thank yous”, I made a point of emphasising that I have modelled my journalism around that of Pilger. The painful reality is that, growing up in a refugee camp in Gaza, as a general rule we hardly ever linked Western media, intellectuals or journalists with telling the truth. Although, with time, I realised that this wholesale assumption was hardly fair, associating bias with everything Western had its own justification, if not logic.
Aside from the typical corporate biased media narrative on Palestine, the Middle East, the Arab and Muslim world — in fact, the whole Global South — there were those who were identified as part of the “left”. We were told that those supposed leftists were the exceptions to the norm. However, experience has taught me that, aside from ideological nuances, even the so-called left still saw the non-Western world based on a different set of unique biases. They perceived the rest of the world through judgmental eyes, as if they, and they alone, had access to a moral code according to which the rest of us must be filtered.
Such “leftists”, for example, are only against certain kinds of wars, especially if they perceive military interventions to be driven by imperialist agendas. For them, so-called humanitarian intervention is morally justified, although there is no evidence that Western interventions of that kind ever bode well for any country.
Ultimately, that reasoning tends to have little impact on the outcome of international conflicts. Worse, some leftists often find themselves siding with the very imperialist powers they supposedly loathe, whenever it is convenient for them to do so.
And then there are the John Pilgers of this world: Principled to the core, and able to understand, dissect and convey the political, cultural and historical complexities of conflicts to millions of people across the globe.
“We are beckoned to see the world through a one-way mirror, as if we are threatened and innocent and the rest of humanity is threatening, or wretched, or expendable,” Pilger said in his 2009 Sydney Peace Prize acceptance speech.
For the Australian-born journalist, whose impact on our understanding of major global conflicts is arguably unparalleled in modern history, these were not mere words but principles to which he adhered to throughout his life, until his passing on 30 December.
In his book, and accompanying documentary, The New Rulers of the World, Pilger connects the dots of major global issues brilliantly — social injustice, inequality, the so-called war on terror and more — demonstrating the powerful maxim that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.
Pilger’s enemies were never a certain race, nation or even an ideology.
He simply served as the sharp critic and, at times, the mobiliser against all sorts of government-orchestrated injustices, whether within national boundaries or internationally.
He challenged imperialism in all of its forms; colonialism wherever it was found. This put him on a collision course with Washington, Canberra, London and other Western capitals.
His dedication to the causes of indigenous people, from Australia to Palestine to Indonesia, were all reflected in great books and documentaries, such as Utopia and Palestine is Still the Issue, as well as The New Rulers of the World.
Pilger’s powerful texts as an academic, author and journalist must not distract from his equally powerful and hard-hitting documentaries; he was a formidable filmmaker. More important than the many awards he was given for his films, starting with The Quiet Mutiny, was their impact on the way that millions of people around the world perceived issues, conflicts and wars that had only previously been communicated through non-critical eyes.
“Many journalists now are no more than channelers and echoers of what George Orwell called the ‘official truth’,” said Pilger in an interview with David Barsamian in 2007. “They simply cipher and transmit lies.”
Although, at times, some intellectuals of Pilger’s calibre may have deviated from their commitment to the uncompromising moral code of principled journalism and intellect, his legacy suggests that he was not one of them. He stood firmly on the side of oppressed people; spoke strongly against the injustices meted out by the powerful; and defended free speech uncompromisingly whenever it was threatened.
Pilger was one of the most stalwart supporters of Julian Assange in his war against censorship in all of its forms. “This is not about the survival of a free press. There is no longer a free press… The paramount issue is justice and our most precious human right: to be free,” he wrote in July 2023.
Before actually meeting John, I exchanged many messages with him. The first time he responded to my request for an endorsement of a book, I was truly thrilled. I was also moved by his kind response to a young writer who was starting out on his own quest for a just world. Many messages and years later, we finally met in person. I quickly made my way to him through the crowd in Sydney to thank him for all that he has done for Palestine and for all the other oppressed people of this world.
His death, especially during these difficult times, is a major loss for humanity. I believe deep down, though, that John Pilger must have known that things would eventually get better. He did his bit towards this, and much more.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.