Television Review

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The Independent Culture
TWO WEEKS AGO on The Mark Thomas Comedy Product (C4), Thomas wormed his way into an arms fair by passing himself off as a PR man. His great coup was to persuade an Indonesian minister to admit that his government was involved in torture - according to Thomas, the first time such an admission had been made publicly. This Monday, on Start the Week on Radio 4, John Pilger said that he had infiltrated Indonesian-occupied East Timor by passing himself off as a tourism consultant. Given its evident weakness for PR and tourism, you would guess that the Indonesian government is unusually anxious about its image in the outside world.

The impression was confirmed last night in The Timor Conspiracy (ITV). John Pilger showed film of the appropriately named Hotel Flamboyant, and claimed to have extensive documentation proving that Indonesian soldiers had been trained to play the parts of happy Timorese natives for the benefit of foreign visitors. He also had training manuals issued to Indonesian troops in East Timor, explaining how important it was not to take photographs of people while they were being tortured in case the pictures fell into the hands of "irresponsible elements".

But the thrust of the film was to suggest that the Indonesians were getting unduly worried. In 1994, in the film Death of a Nation, Pilger displayed evidence that Indonesia had been carrying out a programme of genocide in East Timor, a former Portuguese colony which Indonesia had illegally annexed in 1975. Last night's follow-up film showed that a number of foreign powers, including Britain, Australia and the US, had in effect colluded in this crime against humanity.

Along the way, Pilger recapped the charges against Indonesia. Aside from indiscriminate killings and rapes carried out by Indonesian troops following the invasion, there has been a programme of enforced administration of contraceptive drugs to Timorese women. General Suharto, the former Indonesian dictator, received an international prize for his contribution to family planning - an irony that warrants comparison with Henry Kissinger's winning of the Nobel Peace Prize, which prompted Tom Lehrer to give up satire on the grounds that it had become redundant.

And here was Kissinger himself, back in 1975. Pilger had obtained minutes of a meeting between Kissinger and his aides at which the American Secretary of State had been mostly concerned with distancing himself publicly from the supply of armaments to the Indonesian government, in violation of American law. His solution was to stop the flow of arms in December 1975, then start it again secretly in January 1976. Next time you find yourself seated next to Dr Kissinger on an aeroplane and are feeling tongue-tied, you might like to try asking him about this as a way of breaking the ice.

Pilger's moral certainties provide a welcome respite from the spin of modern politics, and this is one reason why, when he complains and hectors, people will go on listening. That aside, his certainty is a marvellous weapon (the phrase "sword of truth" springs to mind, though perhaps it doesn't have quite the associations I'm looking for). It is fatal to counter his black-and-white with any shade of grey. Derek Fatchett, minister of state at the Foreign Office, was asked whether Amnesty International's figures on export licences for armaments to Indonesia granted by the Labour government were correct. He responded by launching into a spiel about transparency and accountability which, if anything, obfuscated the matter in hand. The effect was to make Fatchett seem evasive and Machiavellian. By contrast, Alan Clark guffawed at the notion that the Hawk aircraft Britain sells to Indonesia are "trainers", or that the Indonesians might have offered guarantees not to use them for purposes of oppression. The frankness of his comments almost masked the cynicism underlying them.

The Timor Conspiracy was a powerful piece of film-making - one which didn't push its message down the viewer's throat. But it was also an admission of failure: Pilger had already showed that the occupation of East Timor is an appalling crime. The result has been to get us a Government which professes an ethical foreign policy but continues to collude in this crime. Where is the power of television now? And really, who needs PR?