UK Covertly Plotted to Discredit John Pilger

In 1975, the Foreign Office’s secret Cold War propaganda unit, the Information Research Department, opened a file on the Australian journalist, John McEvoy reports.

Terrace of London’s Carlton House, original home of the Information Research Department’s propaganda activities. (Suedwester93, Wikimedia Commons, Public domain)

By John McEvoy 
Declassified UK

Recently declassified files show how the U.K. government covertly monitored Australian journalist John Pilger, and sought to discredit him by encouraging media contacts to attack him in the press.

Pilger, who died in London on 30 December at the age of 84, was best known for his numerous documentaries exposing U.S., U.K. and Australian government policies. 

His film, Stealing a Nation, showed how Britain expelled the native population of the Chagos Islands to make way for a U.S. military base, while Death of a Nation exposed how the genocide in East Timor “happened with the connivance of Britain, the U.S., and Australia.” 

Secret File

In 1975, the Foreign Office’s secret cold war propaganda unit, the Information Research Department (IRD), opened a file on Pilger. 

That year, IRD official Mrs J. O’Connor Howe complained that Pilger’s television programme broadcast in the U.K., “A Nod and a Wink,” had given “entirely sympathetic treatment to the Shrewsbury pickets,” when several trade unionists were wrongfully convicted and imprisoned.

Howe added: “It must be hoped that John Pilger and his sort do not become influential in their current affairs coverage.” Another official responded that “Pilger’s nods and winks need more careful watching.”

Though the IRD was shut down in 1977, Pilger’s file was transferred to its successor organisation, the Special Production Unit (SPU), and the Foreign Office continued to track his movements over the following years.

‘Hatchet Job’

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Pilger visited southeast Asia to film Year Zero: The Silent Death of Cambodia and Cambodia: Year One

The documentaries covered Washington’s secret bombing campaign of Cambodia during the Vietnam War, and the partial responsibility of the U.S. and Britain for the brutality under the Pol Pot regime.

Throughout this period, the U.K. government monitored Pilger’s activities and plotted to launch counter-measures against him.

The office of then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher privately asked the British embassy in Bangkok for “information on Pilger’s journalistic background.”

It specifically requested “examples of any Pilger material on Vietnam/Cambodia over the period 1968-78, and examples of his work criticising U.K. domestic policies.”

Pilger in 2011. (SCU Media Students, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0)

In September 1980, Thomas J. Duggin, a British embassy official in Bangkok, noted that Pilger’s work on Cambodia “deserves a rejoinder [response] before his film is shown — a subject worthy of Peter Joy’s attention perhaps.”

Peter Joy was no ordinary diplomat. He had been the head of the IRD’s top-secret Special Editorial Unit (SEU), which planned and executed “black propaganda” operations worldwide against those deemed to threaten Britain’s interests.

In this effort, the SEU worked closely with MI6 to produce reports from fake sources and fictitious organisations, and planted strategically valuable information into the press.

What Duggin was seemingly suggesting, in other words, was that the Foreign Office covertly inspire a hit-job on Pilger prior to the release of his film.


Charge Sheet

The Foreign Office subsequently compiled a charge sheet on Pilger, and sought out a journalist who would be prepared to carry out a “hatchet job” on him. 

Such an article could draw on “the commentaries from the two Bangkok Embassies [the U.K. and the U.S.] to counter the impressions created by Pilger’s reporting”. 

The embassy also obtained information from “one of Pilger’s associates” who privately told them “about his motives and activities” in the region. It is unclear who this was.

Ultimately, “the reluctance of one journalist” to carry out the hatchet job scuppered the Foreign Office plan to counter Pilger’s reporting on Cambodia.

It nonetheless remains unclear whether the Foreign Office succeeded elsewhere in inspiring attack pieces on Pilger.

Many of the documents in Pilger’s file have been removed, with some due to remain classified until 2041.

‘I Can Only Burst Out Laughing’

The Foreign Office frequently discussed Pilger in seething terms. His work on Southeast Asia read like a “cynical voice from the Kremlin,” one Foreign Office official argued, with another complaining that it “looks like a PR job on behalf of Hanoi and Moscow.”

Before his passing, Pilger responded to these revelations: “Some of the documents on me going back to the eighties — and that was when I was reporting from Southeast Asia, Cambodia, Vietnam. 

“My reporting, which was really exclusive, it was telling people something that they didn’t know, it was exposing a great deal, it was exposing the tyrants, but it was also exposing who was backing the tyrants secretly – it’s rather embarrassing.

“I was described in one of these documents as pro-Kremlin. I mean, when I read this I, I say many years later, I can only burst out laughing… But we must never make light of it”.

John Pilger privately told this author that he was aware of a Foreign Office campaign against him, linked to the U.S., but had few supporting documents. 

“The stories of mine that stung them was their involvement with the Khmer Rouge and Suharto’s war on East Timor,” he said.

John McEvoy is an independent journalist who has written for International History Review, The Canary, Tribune Magazine, Jacobin and Brasil Wire.

This article is from Declassified UK.

10 comments for “UK Covertly Plotted to Discredit John Pilger

  1. NS
    January 16, 2024 at 19:38

    Hardly a revelation, this. Foreign Office and Foreign Affairs depts have files on all left wing journalists. There were so many spooks involved in surveilling John’s mentor, Wilfred Burchett, that ASIO even had someone hanging around Melbourne’s New International Bookshop seeing how many copies of Wilfred’s books were sold. This stuff carries on beyond the grave too; when publishing Wilfred’s full autobiography more than 20 years after his death, we were threatened by Nick Warner, the son of the journalist set up to be Wilfred’s nemesis, Denis Warner. Nick was then a senior Defence Dept official.

  2. Lois Gagnon
    January 16, 2024 at 12:06

    The more treasure the ruling class hoards, the more criminality they engage in to keep the theft going, leading them to ever greater depths of paranoia. They have become totally psychotic attempting to hide what more and more members of the public can’t help but see. This is of course what makes them particularly dangerous at this point.

  3. January 16, 2024 at 10:54

    The reality in which we live: 1984 arrived early, stayed late and has probably always been with us, taking notes.

    • Jack Lomax
      January 17, 2024 at 02:38

      Nineteen Eighty Four was of course a dystopian fictionalized account of the underlying reality of capitalism and that reality has been with us since its start in the Industrial Revolution . A bit earlier for the imperial seizure of land which the British Empire was built upon. The industrial Revolution created capitalism first in England building on existing feudalism and then quickly in many western European countries and of course in the recently freed colony of North America. Capitalism is a brutal development of the strong over the weak. It is systemised greed with powerless flowery adornments such as fake democracy and rule of law. The latest example of its horror lies in the so-called democratic Zionist State of Israel. Actually the Zionist represent the most powerful layer of this systemised brutal greed called capitalism with their power centre in Washington

  4. Vera Gottlieb
    January 16, 2024 at 10:33

    US/UK = the asses of evil. No wonder they get along so well.

  5. SH
    January 16, 2024 at 10:31

    Well at least he didn’t wind up like Assange ..

  6. Francis Lee
    January 16, 2024 at 04:31

    Like the Bourbons the American ruling class has learned nothing and forgotten nothing.


    America and its advocates have always argued that America does not share the same class relationships, rigid social-hierarchies and history of class-struggles as has been the case in Europe.

    But even a cursory reading of American labour history will soon divest the reader of any such notion.

    Class struggles in the US have in fact been particularly vicious with the ruling elites being unrepentantly ruthless. For the established ruling elites Trump was an outsider, a voice of the hoi-polloi and decidedly not to the taste of the elite coalitions and ideologues of the F Scott Fitzgerald and Ayn Rand social/political strata. This has always been the case pretty much everywhere. To be sure, Trump was a semi-educated parvenu and many of his supporters may have also been somewhat deficient in this respect. But here’s the point. The worldview of the rich and famous was a perception of the world as they have and continued to experience it. In this respect being determines consciousness. This is the permanent social-political hierarchy that always and everywhere has existed from time immemorial but there are none so blind as those who refuse to see.

    Class struggle has been a continuous leitmotif throughout the ages and refusing this historical phenomenon doesn’t make it less so.

    How well did Pilger know this

    • firstpersoninfinite
      January 16, 2024 at 18:26

      I agree, but not with the F. Scott Fitzgerald comparison. He was an elite writer, but only because of his talents, not his themes. True, he wasn’t a socialist like Jack London, but a character like Gatsby is merely a tool of the rich – even his riches couldn’t save him from his past. The rich have no past – they only have the future over which they will retain their hold until the last trumpet sounds. And even then, they won’t have to worry about getting what they deserve.

  7. Valerie
    January 16, 2024 at 04:07

    I’m so glad Mr. Pilger could laugh about it. That would have been my response too.

  8. JonT
    January 16, 2024 at 02:46

    “My reporting, which was really exclusive, it was telling people something that they didn’t know, it was exposing a great deal, it was exposing the tyrants, but it was also exposing who was backing the tyrants…”

    You know that they are worried when the surveillance starts. If John Pilger had spent his career writing untruths and distortions, or was just plain wrong, ‘they’ would say so. They didn’t and he wasn’t.

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