Putting the world to rights

John Pilger divides opinion as few campaigning journalists have ever done. As the work of the veteran film-maker is featured in a week-long festival, Charlie Courtauld considers a man whose very name has entered the language
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The Independent Online

It's quite an honour. The Barbican in London is staging a week-long Film Festival devoted to screening the pick of the 35-year output of one television film-maker. Some of the man's most celebrated documentaries will be screened, from Year Zero: The Silent Death of Cambodia to Inside Burma, Land of Fear and his latest, The War on Democracy.

Few TV journalists stir such strong emotions as John Pilger. To some, he's a "tankie" bore, banging an ever more predictable anti-American drum. To others - me included, incidentally - he's something of a miracle, a lone campaigning voice in a rising tide of current affairs dross. Most miraculous of all is that this spiky and confrontational journalist has made his home on that most unforgiving of channels: ITV.

Back in the early 1970s, when Pilger began his film-making days, ITV was something of a haven for current affairs. The network which offered us World in Action, Weekend World and This Week was a logical place for the Aussie in the white suit (a garb which - incidentally - he was wearing long before Martin Bell, and which was appropriate to one region, Indochina; less so to chilly Bosnia).

While American foreign policy in Vietnam and Cambodia was falling apart every night on television news and in the pages of the Washington Post, it made sense for ITV to deploy a young go-getting journalist to South-East Asia, the better to delve into the human stories behind the geopolitics. The resulting series of 25-minute films announced ITV's intention to create their answer to Bob Woodward. But then the American troops withdrew and the world's gaze moved away from Indochina.

Most of the foreign correspondents drifted off, to the "sexier" stories of Iran or Uganda. But Pilger stayed with the region. The accusations of monomania began to fly. "Pilgerish" became a noun in the pages of Private Eye to describe mawkish and sloppy film-making. But Pilger had the last laugh: Year Zero: The Silent Death of Cambodia was a devastating exposé of a region we had all taken our gaze from.

For ITV's current affairs output, the 1980s was a disaster. As the commercial pressures grew, Weekend World was axed. World in Action began its decline into "tabloidisation", and the Thatcher government turned the heat on This Week after "Death on the Rock". It looked terminal for serious programming on the third channel.

Yet Pilger's programmes - to no little astonishment - remained. He just shunted down the schedules into the less hostile waters after the News at Ten. A less canny reporter might have kicked up a stink and flounced out as his programmes became ghettoised. But Pilger was wise enough to appreciate that his films could never compete with the millions of viewers for Bad Girls. It was a wise move: competitive environments may be higher profile, but they are riskier as a consequence. A few weeks of "only" 4 million viewers and Bad Girls has been axed; Pilger sails blithely on, the lack of viewers more than made up in the channel's eyes by the enviable crop of RTS, Bafta and Richard Dimbleby awards.

For the essential point about John Pilger is that he's a genius at telly - and only telly, frankly. Hear him speak, read his books - even his articles in the New Statesman - and you might well fall asleep. In print and in person, he's ranting, repetitive and predictable. Noam Chomsky, Harold Pinter, John Pilger. Even when you agree with them, you know exactly what they're going to say - and you know that they'll expend a lot of words saying it. Righteous indignation is worthy, but rather dull in print.

But Pilger's ineptness outside his chosen medium only makes his brilliance at the TV documentary the more awe-inspiring. I'm afraid he's compartmentalised with the late Fred Dibnah in my mind: someone I'd rather stick needles in my eyes than be stuck in a lift with - but who embodies that overused term "TV natural".

And he's of an almost unique style these days. In these post-ironic times, television reporters tend to adopt a gently mocking, taking-the-piss style which finds humour in the foibles of our leaders. Politics as soap opera, foreign affairs as slapstick.

Pilger's not like that at all. American and UK policy in the Chagos Islands, in East Timor, in Palestine or in Burma don't make him smile: they make him angry. And if you watch his films, they'll make you angry too. The 2004 film about the Chagos Islands, Stealing the Nation, was typical.

Through the personal histories of the expelled populace, Pilger took an obscure subject, meticulously researched it through Wilson-era UK Cabinet papers, and delivered an unforgettable piece of (late-night) ITV viewing, which rightly scooped the RTS documentary award. But even the TV natural must move with the times, and if angry documentaries are less favoured on television these days, they've found a new audience - thanks not least to Michael Moore - in the cinema.

Hence Pilger's next film, The War on Democracy, is scheduled for release on the big screen later this year as well as the small one. And hence, of course, this season at the Barbican. The Festival begins on Thursday with a question-and-answer session with the man himself. My advice: skip that and go to the screenings; let the films speak for themselves.

The John Pilger Film Festival begins at the Barbican, EC2Y (020-7638 8891) on Thursday and runs to 21 September.

Charlie Courtauld is a former editor of BBC1's 'Question Time' and a former television critic of 'The Independent on Sunday'. He is now editor of 'Frost over the World', a weekly series to be shown on the forthcoming Al Jazeera International channel

Landmark moments

* YEAR ZERO: THE SILENT DEATH OF CAMBODIA (1979)

The searing documentary with which Pilger helped to raise awareness of the genocide carried out by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979, in which more a million people died.

* DEATH OF A NATION: THE TIMOR CONSPIRACY (1994)

John Pilger's controversial claim that the the US, Britain and Australia knew of the genocide that Indonesia inflicted on East Timor. Footage of a 1991 massacre and other sequences filmed in secret added to the film's power.

* APARTHEID DID NOT DIE (1998)

Pilger was banned from South Africa in the Seventies for his attempt to expose the reality of the apartheid regime. Thirty years on he returns and notes the iniquities that continued in the era of the African National Congress.

* PAYING THE PRICE: KILLING THE CHILDREN OF IRAQ (2000)

Three years before the invasion of Iraq, Pilger exposed the effects on it of UN sanctions. With him was Peter Halliday, former assistant UN secretary-general, who had resigned the post in protest. Charlotte Philby

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