John Pilger — a pioneering journalist

John Pilger — a pioneering journalist

PAUL DONOVAN looks back on the life of John Pilger who died on December 30, and remembers a friend who was inspiring, kind and supportive

THE RENOWNED journalist John Pilger has died at the age of 84.

Australian by birth, Pilger had strong Irish roots, with his mother Elsie's maiden name being Marheine.

Pilger's Irish antecedents go right back to 1821, when his great-great grandfather Francis McCarthy,26, was convicted of "uttering unlawful oaths," which meant political agitation in his native County Roscommon. He was transported to Australia for the crime. His great-great grandmother, Mary Palmer,18, was sentenced at Middlesex Gaol and transported for life.

Pilger maintained strong links with Ireland over the years, retracing his ancestral roots, when taking part in the Famine walks.

He was always regarded as a good friend of Ireland, never fearing to speak out on matters, particularly in the North.

During the Troubles, Pilger was particularly critical of a partiality in media coverage that saw the British government's “feuding tribes” model being adopted without question. He asked where the sources were in the republican movement for the mainstream British media.

He was also critical of the Labour Party for often being more hard-line than the Tories on Ireland, in an effort to justify their right to govern to the establishment.

Pilger first rose to fame, though, for his international reporting on the Vietnam War, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Burma, East Timor, Australia and the Middle East.

Together with filmmaker David Munro, he broke the news of devastation in Cambodia caused by four years of tyrannous rule by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge.

In a later documentary, the team revealed training being given to the Khmer Rouge in exile by British forces.

In America, Pilger was accompanying Robert Kennedy on his Presidential campaign in 1968, when the senator was shot in the Ambassador Hotel. Reporting for the Daily Mirror on June 5, 1968, Pilger wrote: "He's the next President Kennedy! said a woman standing next to me. She then fell to the floor, with a bullet wound to the head (she lived)."

He also did much to bring to light, the inhuman treatment of indigenous people in Australia.

Born in Bondi, New South Wales, Pilger moved to Britain in 1962.

The multi-talented journalist, communicated stories of injustice via his work for the Daily Mirror newspaper (1962 to 1986) and documentary films, mainly for ITV. He was also, later, a columnist for the Guardian and New Statesman. Pilger also wrote many books.

On the domestic side, Pilger brought the story of the struggle of children to get compensation in relation to the damage done by the drug Thalidomide to national attention.

He won a stream of national and international journalistic awards, being declared Journalist of the year in 1967 and 1979.

Pilger, though, remained a true advocate of speaking truth to power, a real seeker after justice. "Secretive power loathes journalists who do their jobs, who push back screens, peer behind facades, lift rocks. Opprobrium from on high is their badge of honour," said Pilger, who remained a stern critic of the mainstream media to the end. He particularly loathed those who used their positions to parrot establishment PR, rather than doing the job of bringing the powerful to account.

He warned of fake news long before it became a term.

In later years, Pilger stood by Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, as he was persecuted, standing bail and visiting him at the Ecuadorian embassy and prison. Unlike, many media people, Pilger stood by Assange till the end.

Typically in his final published piece, a month before he died, Pilger, called on everyone to stand up to authority. He called Assange a Spartacus figure. "The Palestinians are Spartacus. People who fill the streets with flags, and principal and solidarity are Spartacus. We are all Spartacus, if we want to be."

On a personal note, John Pilger was a great inspiration, friend and support, particularly when starting out in journalism.

It was his work that played a major part in inspiring me to want to write. Later, I did research on his films, books and columns.

The generosity of time, encouragement and support given by John over many years are something that I will never forget.

In the early days, John helped persuade the Guardian to send me to the North to do a piece on the 25th anniversary of the Troubles. It was a very revealing trip, from Bloody Sunday relatives in Derry to the relatives of the Dublin Monaghan bombings.

There could be hostility in the North toward journalists, especially from the mainstream British media. However, the mention of John Pilger would see any hostility disappear. John was respected everywhere for his work in standing up for ordinary people.

A truly inspirational journalist and human being, he will be sorely missed. A man who remained true to his principles to the end, admired and respected internationally, the body of work he leaves behind will stand the test of time. He was also an inspiration to so many, some of whom he helped along the way.

John Pilger is survived by his partner Jane and children Zoe and Sam.