The last two sessions of THiNK feature tall men-myths, legends carved out of granite. First up is John Pilger, his face reddened by a day in the sun, speaking with resonance and authority about his years of watching the consequences of untrammelled power on the lives of the poor. Pilger over five decades has insisted on holding the countries he lived in, indeed all of Western society to account. It requires a particular strength of character to tell your own people uncomfortable truths, to tell people who believe in a certain idea of themselves that that idea is a delusion.
He begins the session with a blistering condemnation of Tony Blair, of British duplicity in the run-up to the war in Iraq, on its willingness to be the most sycophantic of the United States’ acolytes. He turns his attention later to the US itself, its “enormous, rapacious military power”, to its state terrorism. He quotes Harold Pinter from his scabrous Nobel prize-winning lecture in which he contended that while the Soviet Union’s crimes were known and exhaustively catalogued, “US crimes in the same period have only been superficially recorded, let alone documented, let alone acknowledged, let alone recognised as crimes at all.”
Pilger, who grew up in the ’40s and ’50s, like so many at the time (and so many still), enraptured with American pop culture, with John Wayne and hamburgers, does not target his criticisms at American people but at a state warped by its own power. Indeed, as Edward Snowden’s revelations have shown, ordinary American people are victims of what Pilger described as a “massive conspiracy to delude and misinform its own people and most of the world.” In Snowden’s willingness to risk everything for principle, Pilger sees “one of the world’s great moral acts”.
It makes him, in stark contrast to Tina Brown earlier in the day, optimistic for the future of journalism. He includes Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning in his praise for those who have been doing the work of journalists in standing up to power. The courage of whistleblowers, the existence of sites like Wikileaks, give the lie to the opinion expressed at yet another THiNK session, by Nandan Nilekani, that it’s very easy for journalists to take the moral high ground.
The fact is that journalists have to be oppositional. It’s not an easy out, it’s an important job that journalists have largely forgotten. Do journalists have to find a middle ground between capital and the dispossessed and voiceless? The answer Pilger would probably say is no. What he did say is that we “love to congratulate ourselves” and it’s a “very dangerous” trait, even for (particularly for) journalists.
Pilger didn’t save his home truths for the British and the Americans. He said he found “being in India unreal”, unreal that a State that speaks with such pride of its democracy “fails to give democracy to the majority of people.” It might seem excessive, unless you equate democracy not just with a vote but with a modicum of social justice.
THiNK is an elevated platform, a place to listen to great people talk about ideas. Those ideas, though, as Pilger pointed out, are discussed in a setting of great luxury. It is a sobering reminder. Pilger perhaps isn’t saying that journalists are entirely above compromise but that they should be aware of those compromises and have a moral duty to ask questions of themselves as they do of others.