John Pilger: The Global War on Assange, Journalism & Dissent
John Pilger talks about the persecution of the WikiLeaks publisher and the rapid crackdown on investigative journalism in a wide-ranging interview with Dennis J. Bernstein and Randy Credico.
The muckraking work of Oscar- and Emmy-award-winning filmmaker John Pilger is revered and celebrated by journalists and publishers all over the world. While still in his twenties, Pilger became the youngest journalist to receive Britain’s highest award for journalism, “Journalist of the Year,” and was the first to win it twice. Moving to the United States, he reported on the upheavals there in the late 1960s and 1970s. Pilger was in the same room when Robert Kennedy, the presidential candidate, was assassinated in June 1968.
His reporting in South East Asia and his subsequent documentary, “Year Zero: the Silent Death of Cambodia,” raised almost $50 million for the people of that stricken country. Similarly, his 1994 documentary and dispatches report from East Timor, where he travelled under cover, helped galvanize support for the East Timorese, then occupied by Indonesia. In Britain, his four-year investigation on behalf of a group of children damaged at birth by the drug Thalidomide, and left out of the settlement with the drugs company, resulted in a special settlement. In 2009, he was awarded Australia’s human rights prize, the Sydney Peace Prize. He has received honorary doctorates from universities in the U.K. and abroad. In 2017, the British Library announced a John Pilger Archive of all his written and filmed work.
In this interview with Dennis J. Bernstein and Randy Credico, Pilger talks about what is happening to his friend and colleague Julian Assange, founder and publisher of WikiLeaks, and how his persecution could be the beginning of the end of modern investigative reporting as we know it. Since Assange’s high-profile arrest and maximum-security imprisonment on a bail-jumping charge, journalists and whistleblowers have been pursued, arrested and have their documents and hard drives seized in the U.S., France, Great Britain and Australia.
Bernstein: Good to speak with you again, John. Thanks for talking with us. What’s happening — not only with Julian Assange — but the future of journalism is extremely disturbing. Now we have seen high-profile raids of journalists in Australia, France, and here in the U.S. in San Francisco, where police put a reporter in handcuffs, while they searched his house and seized his hard drive. We know Julian Assange is in maximum security and Chelsea Manning is also locked down. These are terrible times for the open flow of information.
Pilger: Well, it’s happening all over the world now and certainly all over that part of the world that regards itself as the enlightened. We are seeing the victimization of whistleblowers and journalists who tell the truth. There is a global war on journalism. More than that, there’s a global war on dissent. The speed with which these events has happened is quite remarkable since April 11th when Julian Assange was dragged out of the Ecuadorian embassy in London by police. Since then, police have moved against journalists in the United States, in Australia, spectacularly, in Latin America. It’s as if somebody has waved a green flag.
Credico: I was thinking by now that Assange would be out. Didn’t you think at this point that he would be out of the dire situation that he was in when I last saw him two years ago?
Pilger: I’m reluctant to be a futurist. I did think a political deal might have been done. Now looking back, that was naive in the extreme because the very opposite was planned for Julian Assange. There is an “Assange Precedent” at work all over the world. In Australia there was a raid on the public broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, where the federal police marched in with warrants, one of which gave them the authority to delete, change and appropriate the material of journalists. It was one of the most blatant attacks on journalistic freedom and indeed on freedom of speech that I can remember. We saw even Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation attacked.
The political editor of one of Murdoch’s papers, The Sunday Telegraph, watched as her house was ransacked and her personal belongings, intimate belongings, rifled. She had reported on the extent of official spying on Australians by the Australian government. Something similar has happened in France where [President Emmanuel] Macron’s police have moved against journalists on the magazine, Disclose.
Assange predicted this while he was being smeared and abused. He was saying that the world was changing and that so-called liberal democracies were becoming autocracies. A democracy that sends its police against journalists and carries away their notes and hard drives simply because those journalists have revealed what governments have not wanted people to know is not a democracy.
Credico: You know, John, some of the mainstream media here in the U.S. and I guess in the U.K., now that their ox is possibly being gored, have suddenly come out in defense of Assange particularly on the use of the Espionage Act and the gathering of information. I don’t want to denounce them for waiting so long but why did they wait so long and what kind of help can they offer at this point and what should they do since they are in the crosshairs, as well?
Pilger: Let’s look at who is actually in the crosshairs. WikiLeaks co-published the Afghanistan and Iraq War Logs in 2010, in collaboration with a range of media organizations: Der Spiegel in Germany, The New York Times, the Guardian and Espresso. The co-publishers of the Iraq material were also Al Jazeera, Le Monde, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London, Channel 4’s “Dispatches” in London, the Iraq Body Count project in the U.K., RUV (Iceland), SVT (Sweden) and so it goes on.
There’s a list of individual journalists who reported this and worked with Assange. They echoed his work; they were collaborators in the literal sense. I’m looking at a list right now: On The New York Times there is Mark Mazzetti, Jane Perlez, Eric Schmitt, Andrew W. Lehren, C. J. Chivers, Carlotta Gall, Jacob Harris, Alan McLean. On The Guardian there is Nick Davies, David Leigh, Declan Walsh, Simon Tisdall … and so it goes on. All these journalists are in the crosshairs. I don’t believe that many will find themselves in the dire straits in which Julian Assange finds himself because they don’t present a danger to the system that has reacted against Assange and Chelsea Manning; but they have, prima facie, committed the same “crime,” that is, publishing documents that the U.S. government did not want made public. In other words, they are as “guilty” as Assange of journalism.
That applies to hundreds of journalists if not thousands all over the world. The WikiLeaks disclosures were, if not co-published, were picked up by newspapers and journals and investigative programs on television all over the world. That makes all the journalists involved, all the producers, all the presenters, all of them complicit. And, of course, the hounding of Assange and the intimidation of others make a mockery of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which says that you have every right to publish; you have every right to “publish and be damned.” It’s one of the demonstrably noble principles of the U.S. Constitution that has been thrown away completely. And what’s ironic is that the journalists who looked down on Assange, even maintained he was not a journalist, are now running for cover because not only is he a journalist of the highest order he is a far more conscientious journalist than most of them. He — and they in his shadow — were doing a basic job of journalism. That’s why I call it a global war on journalism and the precedent of Julian Assange is unlike anything we have seen.
Bernstein: John I want to sort of pick up where you left off with Randy and I want to unpack more and deepen peoples’ understanding of exactly who Julian Assange is and the, if you will, the beat that he chose for his work. How would you describe Julian Assange’s beat and the people he chose to work with?
Pilger: When I first met Julian Assange, I asked him, “What’s WikiLeaks all about, what are you doing here?” He described very clearly the principle of transparency. In fact, he was describing the principle of free speech: that we have a right to know. We have a right to know what our governments are doing in our name. He wasn’t saying that there is a right to endanger people. He was saying that in the normal business of liberal democracies, we have a right to know what our governments are doing for us, at times conspiring against us, in our name. We have the right to know the truth that they tell in private which are so often translated into untruths in public. That transparency, he said, was a moral principle. That is the “why” of WikiLeaks. He believes it passionately and, of course, that should strike a chord with every authentic journalist, because that’s what we all should believe.
What the Assange case has shown us is that this war on journalism, this war on dissent, has yet to enter the political bloodstream. None of the candidates now running for the presidency of the United States has mentioned it. None of the Democrats have uttered it. We don’t expect the Trump gang to talk about principles like this but there is some naive hope that maybe some of the Democrats might. None of them has.
Bernstein: [What does it say when] Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning; a publisher and one of the most significant military whistleblowers of our time, are in jail and locked down?
Pilger: They want to get their hands on Julian Assange because he protected his source and they want to get their hands on Chelsea Manning because she, being the source, has refused to lie about Julian Assange. She’s refused to implicate him. She’s refuses to say there is a conspiracy between them. These two exemplify the very best of truth telling in the modern era. We’ve been bereft of the likes of Assange and Chelsea Manning.
Yes, there’s been some fine investigative reporting and disclosures but we have to reach back to the caliber of Daniel Ellsberg to appreciate what Chelsea and Julian, these two heroic figures, what they’ve given us and why they’re being persecuted.
If we allow their persecution, so much is lost. The intimidation and suppression will work on all our lives. In the media that once abused Assange, I detect fear. You read some of these editorials by those who once attacked Julian Assange and smeared him, such as in The Guardian, and you see their fear that they may be next. You read famous columnists like Katie Benner in The New York Times, who attacked Assange and now sees a threat from his tormentors to all journalists. The same is true of David Corn [at Mother Jones] who now sees a threat to all of journalism. They are justified in being frightened.
Credico: What was the fear of Assange? That he would have continued to work on new avenues of exposure? Why are they so afraid of Assange?
Pilger: Well, I think they were worried – are worried – that among the 2 million people in the U.S. who have a national security clearance are those whom Assange has called “conscientious objectors.” I once asked him to characterize the people who were using WikiLeaks to release important information. He likened them to the conscientious objectors in wartime, people of principle and peace, and I think that’s quite an apt description. The authorities are worried that there are quite a few Chelseas out there. Perhaps not quite as brave or as bold as Chelsea, but who may start releasing information that undermines the whole war-making system.
Credico: Yeah I spoke to Julian about this about a year and a half ago when I was in London, about trying to make a comparison to mid-19th century Antebellum South and journalists like Elijah Lovejoy and David Walker who were murdered for exposing the brutality and destinism of slavery and I said, “You know, we gotta’ start packaging you in that kind of light,” and he’s says, “You know, there’s a big difference, Randy.” He said that, “See those guys only had one, one side to deal with, that’s it; the people in the South and some of the collaborators in New York that were part of the cotton shipping business. But the rest of the North pretty much was on the side of the abolitionists. I exposed the war crimes and got the conservatives upset with me. And then I exposed misbehavior, malfeasance by the Democratic Party. So, I target everybody, I don’t exempt anybody so it doesn’t apply to me.”
And that’s what’s happened here. [You see it in the small size of the protests on his behalf.] I was at a demonstration the other day, a small little protest for Assange in front of the British embassy, and only half a dozen people were there, a few more the previous week. He’s not generating that kind of interest thus far. And you had people walking by saying, “Assange is a traitor.” I mean, they are so disinformed and I want to go to this quote that you quoted, Vandana Shiva, in your book “Freedom Next Time,” she talked about the “insurrection of subjugated knowledge,” can you talk about that?
Pilger: Vandana Shiva is the great Indian environmentalist and political activist whose books on the threat of monoculture are landmarks, especially the threat of the multinational agri-power companies that impose themselves on vulnerable, rural societies like India. She described an “insurrection of subjugated knowledge.” It is a fine truism. I have long believed that the truth resides in a metaphorically subterranean world and above that is all the noise: the noise of the accredited politicians, the noise of the accredited media, those who appear to be speaking for those below. Now and then, truth tellers emerge from below. Take the Australian war correspondent, Wilfred Burchett, who was the first to reach Hiroshima after the atomic bombing. His report appeared on the front of his newspaper The Daily Express in London, which said, “I write this as a warning to the world.” He was warning about nuclear weapons. Everything was thrown at Burchett to smear and discredit him. The New York Times correspondent was leading this: the same New York Times correspondent who denied that people were suffering effects of radioactivity: that people had died only from the blast. He was later found to be in bed with the U.S. authorities. Wilfred Burchett suffered smears over most of his career. As all whistleblowers do — those who are affronted by the indecency of something they discovered perhaps in a corporation they work for, or within a government — they believe that the public has a right to know the truth.
The Guardian, which turned on Julian Assange with such viciousness having been one of WikiLeaks’ media partners, back in the ‘80s published the disclosures of a Foreign Office official who had sent them the plans of the U.S. to install medium-range Cruise missiles throughout Europe. The Guardian published this and was duly praised as a paper of disclosure and principle. But when the government went to the courts and a judge demanded the paper hand over the documents that would reveal who the whistleblower was — instead of the editor doing as editors are meant to do, standing up for principle and saying, “No, I will not reveal my source” — the paper betrayed its source. Her name is Sarah Tisdall and she went to prison as a result. So, whistleblowers have to be extraordinarily brave, heroic people. When you look at the likes of Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning, it’s as if the full force of the American national security state backed by its so-called allies has been imposed on them. Julian represents an example that they must make because if they don’t make an example of Julian Assange, journalists might even be encouraged to do their job and that job means telling the public what they have a right to know.
Credico: Very well said. In your preface or introduction in your book, “Freedom Next Time,” you also quote Harold Pinter and his Nobel Prize speech in which he talked about the vast tapestry of lies that we feed on and he goes on and says that American crimes were superficially recorded, let alone documented, let alone acknowledged. This is something that Julian Assange has broken out of that mode, big time, and he has exposed war crimes by the U.S. and whatever kind of shenanigans the State Department has perpetrated. You talk about Harold Pinter, what a great influence he’s been.
Pilger: Yes, I recommend to your listeners Harold Pinter’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, I believe it was 2005. It was a superb and eloquent testament of how and why the truth should be told and why we should no longer tolerate political double standards.
Harold Pinter was comparing our view of the Soviet Union and of Stalin’s crimes with America’s crimes; he was saying the main difference was that we know about the scale of Stalin’s crimes and know little about Washington’s. He was saying that the vast silence that enveloped our crimes — when I say, “our crimes,” I mean those of the United State — meant, as he said, memorably, “These crimes didn’t happen, they didn’t even happen when they were happening, they were of no interest, they didn’t matter.”
We have to rid ourselves of these double standards, surely. We have just had a unctuous celebration of June the 6th, D-Day. That was an extraordinary invasion in which many soldiers took part and laid down their lives but it didn’t win the war. The Soviet Union actually won the war but the Russians weren’t even represented, weren’t even invited or spoken of. It didn’t happen, as Pinter would say. It didn’t matter. But Donald Trump was there, lecturing the world on war and peace. It is truly gruesome satire. This silence, these omissions, run right across our newspaper — right across the BB — as if it’s even a semblance of the truth, and it’s not.
Bernstein: I want to pick it up with Wilfred Burchett and the implications, and the enormous responsibility that these big-time journalists have for allowing terrible things to go on unnoticed, based on issues of patriotism and claims of national security. I’m thinking, they had to shut down Willfred Burchett because that could have opened the whole door about how dangerous nuclear weapons and nuclear power is, exploding the myth of the peaceful atom.
Pilger: That’s very true, Dennis, and it also undermined the moral plans of the “Good War,” the Second World War which ended with these two great crimes — the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after Japan posed no threat. Credible historians now don’t tell us the fairytales that these atomic bombs were needed to end the war. So, it’s destroyed in many respects the great moral mission of the war.
It not only did that, it declared, the atomic bombing, that a new war was beginning, a “Cold War,” although it could very well have turned very quickly into a “hot war” with the Soviet Union. And it was saying “we”— that is the United States and its allies like Britain — had nuclear weapons and we’re prepared to use them. That’s the key: We’re prepared to use them. And the United States is the only country that has ever used them against another country.
Of course it then went on to test them throughout the United Nations’ Trust territory, which was meant to be held in trust by the United Nations in the Marshall Islands, setting off many Hiroshimas over a period of 12 years. We didn’t know anything about that at the time. And how much do we know about the development of nuclear warheads that President Obama got underway and committed something like a trillion dollars that President Trump has certainly carried on.
And those treaties that offered some fragile defense against a nuclear holocaust, treaties with the Soviet Union such as the intermediate-range weapons treaty torn up by this administration. One thing leads to another. This is truth telling.
Bernstein: I want to come back to remind people of the kind of structure that Julian Assange created at WikiLeaks to protect whistleblowers. This is crucial because we’ve seen now other journalists being a little more careless and we see sources being tracked down, arrested, and facing major jail time. And I think this is the way that Julian Assange honored whistleblowers by protecting them is a crucial part of who he is and what he did.
Pilger: He invented a system whereby it was impossible to tell who the source was and it allowed people to use a letterbox drop to leak material without their identity being disclosed. The WikiLeaks system gives them that protection. It’s probably that that has so enraged those who are pursuing him. It means that people of conscience within governments, within systems, who are troubled like Chelsea Manning who was deeply troubled by what she saw, have the opportunity to tell the world without fearing that their identity will be exposed. Unfortunately, Chelsea revealed her identity to somebody who betrayed her. It is an unprecedented means of getting the truth out.
Bernstein: John, please tell us about your recent visit with Assange at Belmarsh maximum security prison in Great Britain. How is he holding up?
Pilger: I would like to say one thing about Julian personally. I saw Julian in Belmarsh prison and I got a vivid sense of what he has had to endure. I saw the resilience and courage that I’ve known for many years; but now he is unwell. The pressure on him is unimaginable; most of us would have bent beneath it. So, there is an issue here of justice for this man and what he has had to take; not only the lies that were told about him in the embassy and the lies that sought a full-scale character assassination of him. The so-called respectable media from The New York Times to The Guardian, all of them have reached into the mud and thrown it at him; and today he is a very vulnerable, and I would say to your listeners: He needs your support and solidarity. More than that, he deserves it.
Bernstein: Say a little more about the conditions there and why it’s so significant that they would treat him to a year in this kind of prison.
Pilger: Well, I suppose because of what a threat he is. Even with Julian locked away, WikiLeaks carries on. This is a maximum-security prison. Anyone in for just bail infringement — first of all, they wouldn’t have been sentenced to 50 weeks as he was. They might have been given a fine and at best a month but of course this has now morphed into an extradition, a case with all these ludicrous charges coming from the indictment in Virginia. But Julian, as a person, what’s always struck me he’s the diametric opposite portrayed by so many of his detractors. He has a sharp intellect so he’s clever, of course. He’s also gracious and he’s very funny. He and I often laugh. We even managed to laugh the last time I saw him at the embassy when there were cameras all over the room, you could tell as we swapped notes and we had to cover up what we were actually writing on the pad. He managed to laugh about this. So, there’s a dry, almost black humor and he’s a very passionate person but his resilience has always astonished me. I’ve tried to put myself in his position and I couldn’t imagine it. And when I saw him in prison and we had to sit across from each other, I was with a couple of other people, when one of us went around the table just to be close to him she was told to go back by one of the guards. This is what somebody who has committed no crime, yes, he’s committed the crime of journalism, and this is what he has to endure.
Dennis J. Bernstein is a host of “Flashpoints” on the Pacifica radio network and the author of “Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom.” You can access the audio archives at Flashpoint. You can get in touch with the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Randy Credico is an American perennial political candidate, comedian, radio host, activist and the former director of the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice.