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John Pilger Tributes Skip over Lifelong Passion for Conspiracy Theories—and Dictators

By Emma-Kate SymonsJanuary 4, 2024,

Avowedly anti-American journalist has died, generating widespread acclaim

John Pilger interviewed on RT's "Going Underground" program (YouTube/RT screenshot, August 22, 2019).

The left-wing journalist, documentary-maker and crusading commentator John Pilger has died at the age of 84, eliciting a wave of mostly flattering obituaries.

Among the many eulogies and effusive praise for his campaigning reporting style, fewer tributes have critiqued Pilger’s reflexive anti-American worldview and embrace of conspiracy theories – a visceral embrace that escalated over his lifetime. Nor has Pilger’s posthumous reputation been much diminished by his repeated denials or contextualization of the atrocities of dictators, mass murderers and terrorists, from Mao and Pol Pot to Slobodan Milosevic, Bashar al-Assad, Osama bin Laden, Vladimir Putin and more.

As a young reporter in the early 1960s, Pilger moved from his native Australia to London. He quickly became known for his opinionated dispatches as a roving foreign correspondent covering conflicts and wars in countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, Bangladesh and Biafra. Awards and prizes piled up. Yet even in his early career, for Pilger, war crimes and crimes against humanity were nearly always the fault of the West, led by “terror” states like the US, and abetted by a cabal of media barons.

Take the Khmer Rouge’s Killing Fields. With his acclaimed 1979 film Cambodia Year Zero, Pilger drew international attention to the atrocities being visited upon millions of Cambodians. But he went on to claim that Pol Pot and the murderous Khmer Rouge were akin to the Nazis and mostly a phenomenon resulting from nefarious US and British foreign policy actions, including America's bombings of Cambodia. This pattern of explaining, relativizing or negating crimes against humanity or war crimes when perpetrated by current or former Communists, leftists and any opponents of Washington, London, Sydney or Brussels only accelerated as his career progressed.

In 2015 after Islamic State terrorists attacked Paris, Pilger wrote: “the rise to power of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge...had much in common with today's Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). They, too, were ruthless medievalists who began as a small sect. They, too, were the product of an American-made apocalypse, this time in Asia.”

Pilger was lionized by a certain Cold War-nostalgic and “anti-imperialist” America-loathing left, exemplified by figures such as the former British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, ex-finance minister of Greece Yanis Varoufakis, linguist Noam Chomsky and journalists Seymour Hersh and Glenn Greenwald. His fellow travelers hailed Pilger as a hero of the oppressed, “the unheard and the occupied” (to quote Corbyn's hagiographic farewell post on 'X') and a truth-telling deconstructionist of propaganda. Their idol was nonetheless a constant regurgitator of Putin talking points and a regular guest on the Kremlin’s propaganda channel Russia Today (RT).

Ahead of the 2016 US presidential election, Pilger sympathetically labelled Donald Trump a “maverick” who was “less dangerous than Hillary Clinton”. At the same time he attacked Clinton and Barack Obama as war criminals. “[Trump] says the invasion of Iraq was a crime; he doesn’t want to go to war with Russia and China,” Pilger wrote. “The danger to the rest of us is not Trump, but Hillary Clinton. She is no maverick. She embodies the resilience and violence of a system whose vaunted “exceptionalism” is totalitarian with an occasional liberal face.”

Pilger also used openly antisemitic arguments, invoking the rhetoric of Holocaust denial. In his final column he alleged that Israel was perpetrating a “Final Solution” in Gaza. In earlier writings he argued that Nazi concentration camps were the equivalent of US “Third Reich” foreign policy actions after World War II. And in 1997, Pilger circulated classic antisemitic conspiracy theories on his website about the influence of a rich Jewish lobby, railing that the new prime minister Tony Blair had “shamelessly appointed a friend, Michael Levy, a wealthy Jewish businessman who had fundraised for new Labour, as his "special envoy" in the Middle East, having first made him Lord Levy.” When Michael Green the (Jewish) head of the film company that produced his 2002 documentary Palestine is still the Issue, watched by more than one million people when first broadcast, disavowed it as “factually incorrect, historically incorrect”, Pilger responded in a furious screed for the Guardian. He ranted against the “powerful Israel of the most influential lobbies in the country...orchestrating an email campaign against my film”, and the “overwhelming imbalance in the British media in favour of the Israeli point of view”. The deliberate twisting of Holocaust references was also common in his sweeping condemnations of the country of his birth, chronicled in his bestselling book A Secret Country and films like Utopia. Australian reviews noted his “hyperbole” and historical “dysphemism” in describing a former Aboriginal prison as a “concentration camp”.

Some of the most egregious “Pilgerisms” (yes, his questionable journalistic methods led to the coining of a verb “to Pilger” by the British writer Auberon Waugh, a verb that even entered the Oxford English dictionary) included: his denial of the ethnic cleansing and war crimes of Slobodan Milosevic in Bosnia and Kosovo (Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were to blame); denial of Bashar al-Assad's chemical attacks on Syrian civilians, contrary to all serious investigations (Pilger was ideologically close to Seymour HershRobert Fisk, and Vanessa Beeley, the conspiracy theorist to whom Pilger gave his “wholehearted approval” in 2018. They all considered Syria to be the victim of a US-orchestrated international conspiracy to overthrow Assad's regime); denial that Putin ordered the shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines flight over Ukraine in 2014, and accusations that Ukraine was responsible; his backing of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and declarations that Ukraine was a belligerent “neo-Nazi” Western puppet “CIA theme park”; and his widely panned claims the poisoning in the United Kingdom of ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter was a set up. “This is a carefully constructed drama as part of the propaganda campaign that has been building now for several years in order to justify the actions of Nato, Britain and the United States towards Russia,’’ Pilger intoned on Russia Today, adding, “That’s a fact.” Pilger elsewhere referred to Putin as "the only leader to condemn the rise of fascism in 21st-century Europe". On Ukraine, Pilger, writing in the far-left media outlet Counterpunch in 2015, relayed recurrent false information that the Obama Administration spent "$5 billion in 2014 to fund a coup against an elected government".

Pilger had a special obsession with conspiracies about CIA plots and the late US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, alongside a hatred of security organizations like NATO. His reactions to terror attacks including September 11, 2001 veered dangerously into justification of Islamist terrorism, viewed exclusively through his anti-Western prism as the creation of Washington, London and the West generally.

A notoriously sycophantic filmed interview with Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez whom he said had “inspired remarkable, life-giving changes implemented in Latin America”, attracted ridicule in certain circles. He also became known as an apologist for Chinese foreign policy. In his 2016 film The Coming War on China, for example, Pilger refused to present the facts of Beijing’s actions as a geo-political and military aggressor in the South China sea and beyond — painting an increasingly belligerent China as a victim of US imperialism and “encirclement”.

Towards the end of his life Pilger became a vocal defender of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. And despite frequent appearances on Russia Today, he never ceased blaming a shadowy network of Western media moguls including Rupert Murdoch and assorted mainstream publications for controlling minds and populations. One of Pilger’s staunchest supporters Yanis Varoufakis even posted on X following his death on December 30, 2023: “You will be missed for your dogged, well-researched unveiling of Western media's complicity in perpetrating crimes against Humanity, Reason and Nature.”

As London’s Daily Telegraph pointed out in one of a handful of critical obituaries: “The trouble was that Pilger was never content to let the facts speak for themselves.”

“The title of one of his books was Hidden Agendas, about the power structures that “really” run the world. For Pilger the “real” story was nearly always about American (and/or British) imperialist dirty tricks.”

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Emma-Kate Symons
Emma-Kate Symons
Emma-Kate Symons is a Paris-based journalist and columnist who has been published in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, The New European and Reuters. Educated at the University of Sydney and Columbia University, Emma-Kate has reported from all over Europe, as well as from New York, Washington, Manila, Bangkok and Canberra.
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