John Pilger's reporting collected in British Library

by Stephen Hewitt | Published 14 January 2018

John Pilger at the British Library, in conversation with Gareth Evans, 10 December 2017
10 December 2017: John Pilger at the British Library in conversation with Gareth Evans, on the second day of a festival of documentaries to mark the library's acquisition of a digital archive of his reporting

Over the weekend of 9-10 December 2017 the British Library held a documentary film festival in its Knowledge Centre in Euston Road to celebrate the entry into its archives of decades of reporting by John Pilger, the award-winning reporter, author and documentary film-maker.

On the British Library social science blog Ian Cooke had described the digital archive:

“The archive, produced by Florian Zollmann from John Pilger’s personal collection, brings together for the first time nearly 1,500 news reports, films and radio broadcasts. This includes articles from the Daily Mirror, Guardian, New Statesman, BBC Radio, and 60 films.”

With John Pilger present throughout the two days and introducing films, the British Library screened the following documentaries, made or selected by him.

After a screening of The Quiet Mutiny and Stealing a Nation on Saturday, Pilger delivered an address titled ‘The Power of the Documentary’. On Sunday evening he joined in public discussion with Gareth Evans and answered audience questions.

Introducing John Pilger

John Pilger's address was introduced by Ian Cooke of the British Library.

Cooke said that the material from John Pilger now archived in the British Library reflected a wide interest in international affairs including conflict, power and the consequences of their use and added “they really do chart social and political change in the UK and also in other countries around the world over the past fifty years.”

“And through all of this I think there is that sort of strong commitment to independent investigative journalism of the highest quality and of the quality that's seen John being given the highest honours from British Journalism associations in the UK.”

“These collections are now available in the British Library reading rooms and I think we're just starting to understand the strong kind of research potential within having all this material together in one place”

He went on to “mark thanks” to Florian Zollman for doing the digitisation in the years before the collection came to the British Library.

“It's fantastic that the collection has come to the British Library which really is the national archive for news in all its forms in in the UK. And I and colleagues at the library are grateful to, enormously grateful to John Pilger for his commitment both in making sure that the collection came here, working with us through the various parts of acquisitions but also his commitment in working with us on public engagement and understanding around the collection which really brings us to this weekend and without John's commitment this really wouldn't have happened at all.”

Pilger said “Thank you Ian and again I'd like to say what an honour this is to be to have my archive at the British Library. The British Library is an institution I've long admired.”

He too acknowledged Florian Zollman, saying

“at the beginning Florian has done all the hard work of collating, navigating his way through rooms of er newspaper articles and tapes and books he brought it all together er into I have to say one hard drive which I look at ... astonishing”

The Power of the Documentary

On Saturday 9 December 2017 John Pilger started his address in the British Library by saying “This weekend is called the power of the documentary because it is something I in journalistic terms feel very strongly about.”

The following is a synopsis of the documentaries and names he highlighted in the address that followed.

A version of the full address, substantially the same as Pilger's spoken address, in many parts word-for-word identical, had appeared on the British Library website by January 2018: ‘Why the documentary must not be allowed to die’

The Quiet Mutiny (John Pilger & Charles Denton, 1970)

He talked about the power of his own first documentary The Quiet Mutiny, broadcast by ITV in 1970.

“The Quiet Mutiny had revealed for the first time that the US army in Vietnam was tearing itself apart. There was open rebellion: drafted men were refusing orders and shooting their officers in the back or fragging them with grenades as they slept.”

The USA ambassador to Britain made a complaint.

“What concerned the regulator and the ambassador was the power of a single documentary film: the power of its facts and the power of its witnesses; the power of its style and especially the power of the witness of young soldiers speaking the truth and treated sympathetically by the film-maker.”

Pilger said that in this his first film he was indebted to Charles Denton, “who taught me that facts and evidence told straight to camera and to the audience were indeed subversive.”

“This subversion of official lies is the power of the documentary. I have now made 60 films and I believe there is nothing like this power in any other medium.”

The War Game (Peter Watkins)

He described a 1960s BBC film The War Game by Peter Watkins, which was banned. “The Cabinet papers show that the BBC secretly colluded with the government to ban Watkins’ film.”

Death on the Rock (produced by Roger Bolton, 1988)

He discussed a 1988 film by Thames Television (“one of the most innovative broadcasters in the world”): “Produced by Roger Bolton, Death on the Rock revealed that the British Government deployed SAS death squads against the IRA, murdering four unarmed people in Gibraltar.”

“The film was attacked in a smear campaign, led by the government of Margaret Thatcher and the Murdoch press, notably the Sunday Times, then edited by Andrew Neil.”

“It was the only documentary ever subjected to an official inquiry and its facts were vindicated. Murdoch had to pay up for the defamation of one of the film’s principal witnesses.”

The Battle of Chile: the fight of an unarmed people (Patricio Guzmán)

He said that The Battle of Chile: the fight of an unarmed people by Patricio Guzmán was an “extraordinary film” and only its length had prevented him from choosing it this weekend.

John Grierson, Denis Mitchell, Norman Swallow, Richard Cawston

“In Britain, the pioneering work of John Grierson, Denis Mitchell, Norman Swallow, Richard Cawston and other film-makers in the early 20th century crossed the great divide of class and presented another country.”

Here he made an association with the survivors of Grenfell. He quoted Denis Mitchell, filmer of the working-class street: “Throughout my career I have been absolutely astonished at the quality of people’s strength and dignity.”

Pilger added “When I read those words, I thought of the survivors of Grenfell Tower, still waiting to be re-housed, still waiting for justice, as the cameras now move on to a royal wedding.”

Year Zero: the Silent Death of Cambodia (John Pilger & David Munro, 1979)

He described the overwhelming public response to the broadcast of Year Zero: the Silent Death of Cambodia which he and David Munro made in 1979. He said the response “puts the lie to the myth that the public doesn’t care, or that those who do care eventually fall victim to something called compassion fatigue.”

Harvest of Shame (Edward R. Murrow, 1960)

He said that something similar happened in the USA in 1960 when Edward R. Murrow’s film, Harvest of Shame, was broadcast. “I've long admired this film and I selected it to screen this afternoon because some of its images I've never forgotten.”

Nuclear weapons and breaking the silence

“In survey after survey, when people are asked what they would like more of on television, they say documentaries.”

“The BBC’s Panorama is making sense of Britain’s secret support of jihadism in Syria – belatedly”

Pilger did not say this, but several of his titles imply a silence: The Quiet Mutiny, The Silent Death of Cambodia, Hidden Agendas, A Secret Country, The War You Don’t See, Getting Julian Assange: The Untold Story.

His talk drew towards its close with a quotation from The War Game “On almost the entire subject of nuclear weapons, there is now practically total silence in the press, and on TV. There is hope in any unresolved or unpredictable situation. But is there real hope to be found in this silence?”

He said “In 2017, that silence has returned.”

“It's not news that the safeguards on nuclear weapons have been removed. It's not news that America is now spending $46 million per hour on nuclear weapons: that’s $46 million every hour, 24 hours a day, every day. Who knows that? Silence.”

He said that his film The Coming War on China (2016) has not been broadcast in the USA.

Pilger concluded “When young documentary film-makers ask me how they can make a difference, I reply that it is really quite simple. They need to break the silence. Thank you.”

The Coming War on China (John Pilger, 2016)

The Coming War on China, which the British Library showed the next day, contains an interview with a US military man who described a near launch of nuclear missiles, most of them aimed at China, from a US American military base in the Japanese island Okinawa in 1962 during the so-called “Cuban missile crisis”. The order to prepare to launch was countermanded by sending armed men over to the controls until the authenticity of the original order could be confirmed and it turned out to be false. A man was subsequently court-martialled.

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