Scorching critiques have been John Pilger's hallmark for 35 years. And he's not stopping now - even at Nelson Mandela, writes Rob Brown
Nelson Mandela's heroic status, in both South Africa and around the world, was not at all dented by Brian Walden's recent vicious television lecture. But President Mandela may find it much harder to shrug off a scorching critique of his record in office that will be screened in both Britain and South Africa simultaneously next month. The man debunking the Mandela myth this time will be a journalist that the ANC leader holds in high regard.

John Pilger was banned from South Africa in 1967 for exposing the obscenities of Apartheid. When he recently returned to that country for the first time in 30 years, he was warmly greeted by its head of state. "You must understand," Mandela told him, "it was a great honour to have been banned from my country."

Pilger did feel honoured to be interviewing the most widely revered statesman of our times, but he didn't allow his admiration for Mandela to soften his assessment of his party's conduct in power.

In his hard-hitting film, entitled Apartheid Did Not Die, the Australian- born broadcaster and writer will argue that the dream that began with Mandela's triumphant release is in grave danger. Pilger looks behind the facades of the "rainbow nation" and finds it is not the gleaming new society promised to the expectant crowds at Mandela's presidential inauguration in 1994. He was also startled to discover another side to the South African leader.

"I didn't think I'd sit before Nelson Mandela and get a lecture on the wonders of privatisation, but I'm afraid that's what I got - and in a finger-wagging sort of way," he said last week in an interview conducted in the kitchen of his Victorian terraced home near Clapham Common, south London.

"Mandela is charming and charismatic, but he is also very patrician; a chief in many ways. His government describes its policies as 'cautious Thatcherism', which I consider a contradiction in terms."

Considering the way Pilger portrays the "new South Africa", Mandela should be feted rather than denigrated by Brian Walden, a man who unceremoniously ditched his Labour loyalties to become one of Margaret Thatcher's chief cheerleaders in the 1980s.

John Pilger also writes about South Africa in the final chapter of his new book, Hidden Agendas (Vintage Books, pounds 8.99) that, not surprisingly, covers much the same ground as the 50 documentaries he has now notched up (see panel). He's also started to writing his weekly column again for the New Statesman.

Pilger's return to prominence in both the print and electronic media will be celebrated by those who regard him as the finest crusading journalist of his generation. In every media course in the land there are eager young idealists who dream of becoming the next John Pilger.

Others who view him as a pious polemicist will doubtless seize the chance to have another pop at him. The right-wing essayist Auberon Waugh coined a new verb, "to pilger", which he defined as "presenting information in a sensationalist manner in support of a particular conclusion."

Although he threatened legal action a few years back to stop this term entering the Oxford English Dictionary of New Words, Pilger, now 58, has learnt not to let his critics get him down. "If I were American I'd be accused of advocacy journalism," he sighs. "Actually I've never considered myself particularly radical. But, compared to the mainstream, I suppose I am."

He is certainly more radical - and I suspect more fulfilled - than the hundreds of television and newspaper executives on higher salaries who wonder on a daily basis why they are shuffling press releases and consorting with PR spindoctors instead of engaging in his brand of radical reportage.

Pilger has little sympathy for journalists who complain about spin-doctors but allow themselves to be spun. "I always used to think that the prime role of journalists was to tell people when they were being conned. We can only do that when we separate ourselves from power," he says. "When you court the political establishment, there's a process of seduction and grooming, which is hard to resist when combined with most journalists' own education and upbringing."

He is depressed to see the same culture of conformism and cynicism spreading even at the level of journalism courses. "You say lots of allegedly wise things to students and at the end they invariably ask the same question: 'How do we get a job?' That's a big pressure on young people. It's made the true maverick in journalism an endangered species. People simply cannot afford to be mavericks any more."

It is not just Britain but the entire world that has changed drastically since the day in January 1963 when John Pilger arrived in a snow-covered Fleet Street, wearing only a velvet jacket and a Magic Drip-Dry shirt and a tie. He got his first job on the Daily Mirror not on the strength of his clippings from the Sydney Telegraph but because the chief sub-editor thought that, as an Australian, he would be a useful addition to the office cricket team.

Actually he wasn't an ace spin bowler, or any sort of cricketer. But they forgave him and gave him the opportunity to work his way up the editorial ranks until he became the Mirror's special correspondent and reported from all over the world.

Pilger paid a personal tribute to what was once the greatest selling newspaper in the world in his last major documentary transmitted on ITV just over a year ago. But the central thrust of the film Breaking The Mirror - The Murdoch Effect was a lament for what became of Britain's first quality tabloid after Rupert Murdoch acquired the Sun and transformed it into a new kind of tabloid rival.

Both of these "red tops" have been talking about "smartening up" rather than "dumbing down" in recent months, but Pilger isn't impressed. "I think it's a statement about how far we've gone when I read that Kelvin MacKenzie (the former editor of the Sun who recently became deputy chief executive of Mirror Group) is being drafted in to make the Mirror more serious," he notes contemptuously.

"People are giving up reading these titles because they aren't newspapers any more. They don't make people aware of what is happening in the world. And there's no point in them trying to woo more women readers. There are only so many Daily Mail types around, thank God."

Pilger's own dream is of a new mid-market newspaper "diametrically opposed to everything the Daily Mail stands for". But his experiences on the short- lived News on Sunday a decade ago have taught him that such a venture would need to be properly capitalised and supported.

While others lament the proliferation of pop docs on ITV, Pilger apparently has no problem with the man now in charge of programming at Britain's biggest commercial channel: "David Liddiment is the first controller of ITV I've actually ever met and he was very, very positive and assured me ITV will make more and more challenging documentary films."

Little wonder that Liddiment is so receptive. John Pilger now has a showreel of 50 films demonstrating that it isn't just "pop docs" that strike a popular chord.

Apartheid Did Not Die will be screened at 10.40pm on 21 April, on ITV.


Vietnam: Still America's War 1974

Palestine Is Still The Issue 1974

Guilty Until Proven Innocent 1974

Thalidomide: The 98 We Forgot 1974

The Most Powerful Politician in America 1974

One British Family 1974

An Unfashionable Tragedy 1975

Nobody's Children 1975

Mr Nixon's Secret Legacy 1975

Smashing Kids 1975 1975

To Know Us Is To Love Us 1975

A Nod & A Wink 1975

Zap - The Weapon Is Food 1976

Pyramid Lake Is Dying 1976

Street of Joy 1976

A Faraway Country 1977

Dismantling A Dream 1977

An Unjustifiable Risk 1977

Pilger In Australia 1976

Do You Remember Vietnam? 1978

Year Zero: The Silent Death of Cambodia 1979

The Mexicans 1980

Cambodia Year One 1981

Heroes 1981

The Truth Game 1983

Frontline: In Search of Truth In Wartime 1983

Nicaragua (series) 1983

The Outsiders 1983

Burp! Pepsi v Coke in The Ice Cold War 1984

The Secret Country 1985

Japan Behind the Mask 1987

The Last Dream (Australia) 1988

Heroes Unsung 1988

Secrets 1988

Other People's Wars 1988

Cambodia Year Ten 1989

Cambodia The Betrayal 1990

War By Other Means 1992

Return to Year Zero 1993

Death of a Nation: The Timor Conspiracy 1994

Flying the Flag, Arming the World 1994

Vietnam - The Last Battle 1995

Inside Burma: Land of Fear 1996

Breaking the Mirror - The Murdoch Effect 1997

Apartheid Did Not Die 1998