Maintaining the rage: John Pilger Brunei Gallery Lecture Theatre, SOAS, London University

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The hurrying man with the steamed-up spectacles and the aluminium bicycle pump fell heavily into the seat next to me, and then immediately launched into a summary of the meaning of the Pilger Project - well, bits and pieces of it anyway - for the benefit of the tiny and very delicate-looking old lady who was seated next to him. It was all about the lies that the mainstream media habitually tells, he tells her, still breathing hard from all that pedal-pumping, and of how television is no better either because when one image succeeds another in rapid succession, you are never allowed a single moment's pause for reflection...

Then Pilger himself sauntered onto the stage, a lean, tanned, long-faced man with lank, shoulder-length hair, wearing a beige suit whose ownership he may have disputed from time to time with Martin Bell. He looked pleasantly surprised to be here, as if he had just strolled into the room from a sundowner or two on the verandah.

Could this rather suave looking gentleman indeed be the super-hero journalist of the Sixties and ever onwards, that scourge of international capitalism, that wrester of unpalatable truths from the steaming, fetid swamps of Vietnam and Cambodia?

He was offered a lectern to read from, but chose instead to sit off-centre at an enormously long table with a defiantly Thatcherite-blue tablecloth. The table looked as if it had been made ready for many, and only Pilger had bothered to turn up.

Then, without even being prompted, he dealt with a small issue that may have been festering deep within the minds of those who had already looked at Hidden Agendas, his new book. How is it that it contains within its pages bits and pieces from his last one? Is there a radical distinction to be made between a Pilgerism and a plagiarism - albeit an act of Pilgerism against oneself.

The new book is an outgrowth from the one before that, he explained, with the dogged and doleful earnestness of a bloodhound. In fact, every one of his books is part of a continuing narrative, which is why they flow so seamlessly into each other.

Then he read extracts from it, secret histories of those whom he chooses to call the unpeople of this world - the slave labourers, many of them children, of the Burmese railways: those 500 Liverpool dockers sacked in the winter of 1995, who were refused support by their union, the TGWU, and the government...

Pilger continues to be a distinctive and incisive voice that deserves to be heard, but the quality of his descriptive writing does not match that of James Cameron - or Ryszard Kapuscinski, for example, who wrote brilliant accounts of the last days of Haile Selassie and the war in Angola. Pilger may inveigh against soundbite journalism, but he is most effective when offering infobites himself: like the fact - if it is indeed a fact - for example, that the average length of a TV news soundbite in the US has declined from 42.3 seconds in 1968 to 9.9 seconds now.

Pilger's old-style brand of left radicalism, his calls for international solidarity and collective action, his sentimental evocations of working- class bonding, sound curiously anachronistic these days.

But to this audience, he was electrifying. So electrifying and so disarming, in fact, that they treated him as if he were some coin-in-the-slot oracle. What advice could he give to the young for the future? asked an elderly woman with studied meekness. "Awareness," replied Pilger boldly, "that is what we all need. And what we are finding out is that this government is becoming even more corrupt than the last one. It's consciousness- raising time." And, no, he had not voted in the last election because he thought it pointless. But if this were indeed a nominal democracy with a single ideology, what would he put in its place? A national government of some kind? Frankly, he had no clear idea. He was more in the business of sniffing out evil, whose principal embodiment, of course, was that arch-fiend Rupert Murdoch.

Would the Murdoch dynasty survive? someone asked. After all he's only human. Pilger jumped on that question with glee. "That's the great hope," he said. "We're certain of one thing - that Murdoch's gonna die..."