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Freedom Next Time, by John Pilger

A hero's blinded eye

John Pilger is the most polarising journalist in Britain. To his fans, he is a lank-haired Australian Messiah, the only man who cuts through the lies of the corporate media to bring The Truth. But his detractors despise him so much they even coined a verb - "to pilgerise" - in his honour: "to present information in a sensationalist manner to reach a foregone conclusion". Few people stand between these two positions, admiring his great skills and exposés but weeping over his occassional follies. I try to.

Freedom Next Time mostly showcases Pilger at his best. There are none of the wild statements that sometimes scar his New Statesman columns. In a long discussion of 9/11 here, he does not repeat his recent claim - based on a single source he has not met - that, unless there was an "extraordinary coincidence", the US government deliberately stood down their defences to let the massacre proceed. Nor does he repeat his statement that he has "seldom felt as safe in any country" as in Saddam's Iraq, a claim he usually follows up by presenting Blair's Britain in contrast as "a police state".

Instead, he writes up the superb investigative films he has made over the past five years. Two chapters in particular are world-class journalism, reaching the heights of Pilger's old friend and mentor Martha Gellhorn. "Stealing a Nation" tells the shamefully under-reported story of how the British government ethnically cleansed thousands of its own citizens - a "crime against humanity", according to the International Criminal Court. In secrecy, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, British governments "tricked, coerced and finally expelled the entire population" of the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean, "to give the principal island, Diego Garcia, a paradise, to the Americans for a military base".

Pilger brilliantly cuts from melancholic close-ups of islanders, dumped in distant countries, homeless and suicidal, to the high politics of Whitehall. After telling of dead babies and wrist-slashing mothers, he unearths memos in which civil servants declare they must present the islands as empty, "because to recognise that there are permanent inhabitants will imply there is a population whose democratic rights will have to be safeguarded". Pilger draws a subtle comparison with the response to a threat to the Falkland Islands a few years later, when the invasion by the Argentines was (rightly) depicted as a fascist monstrosity.

The chapter "Apartheid Did Not Die" is just as contrarian and just as true. Pilger returns to South Africa after 30 years, the ban imposed by the apartheid tyranny having dissolved into dust. He finds that the ultra-neoliberal policies imposed by the IMF and World Bank - with the complicity of the ANC elite - have pickled the racial divisions of the old regime and suffocated dreams of black freedom. More black farmers have been evicted under ANC democracy than under apartheid, and the World Bank is even lobbying the ANC to stop paying wages to whole sections of public sector workers, suggesting instead they offer "food for work".

He offers a blizzard of bleak human stories that lie behind the figures: while white average income has risen by 15 per cent under the ANC, average black household income has fallen by 19 per cent. Yet again, the promise of Thatcher-style trickle-down economics is a hallucination, and yet again racial divisions become stronger. This is an end to apartheid?

And yet... despite these hand-grenade passages, Pilger's flaws can be spotted elsewhere. His concluding chapter on Afghanistan declares "the liberation of women is a mirage", but Afghan women do not agree. A coalition of aid agencies including Oxfam and Save the Children - hardly stooges of the US government - conducted detailed polls that found a vast majority believe they are better off since the fall of the Taliban. Yet Pilger says "the plight of rural women is often more desperate now, because whereas the Taliban... punished crimes against women", the warlords do not. Talibanism was itself a crime against women, reducing them to chattels. The Taliban were the perpetrators of crimes against women; in what bizarre circumstances could they be presented as their protectors?

Worse still, Pilger praises the Taliban's eradication of heroin crops, approvingly quoting an aid worker who calls it a "modern miracle". How is this something for a left-winger to praise? This eradication was achieved by mass terror, with the Taliban slaying bitterly poor farmers dependent on the opium crop - a tactic the most hardline in the Bush administration now want to repeat by trashing the crops and leaving the farmers to die. The humane solution is legalisation of the heroin trade, not praise for the most vicious and insane drug eradication programme of all. This passage is a reminder that when Pilger is good, he is great, but when Pilger is bad, he reeks.

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