Introduction to: ‘John Pilger: Documentaries that changed the world’

by Mark Curtis 

The DVD collection can be found at:

John Pilger is surely the most outstanding journalist and film-maker in the world today and these twelve films are testimony to that. No other film-maker has consistently exposed the reality of Western governments’ policies and revealed their lies to us, the public. As an historian working in this area, I, and others in my generation, owe Pilger’s investigations a great debt. For example, he revealed secret British military training of forces allied to the gruesome Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the 1990s; massacres by Indonesian forces of East Timorese protesting at their country’s occupation; and the horrific effects in Iraq of depleted uranium weapons fired by the British and US military. These films are full of such revelations, not to mention incriminating admissions from officials, such as in the film, Breaking the Silence, where US Secretary of State Colin Powell is shown before the invasion of Iraq conceding that Saddam Hussein has no nuclear weapons capability.

But more importantly, Pilger’s films have brought urgent issues to the attention of large numbers of people for the first time. For years, Britain provided arms to Indonesia which helped sustain the latter’s brutal occupation of East Timor, in which around 200,000 people died. Yet the mainstream TV channels barely reported the conflict, let alone Britain’s complicity in it. It was Pilger’s film, Death of a Nation, much of which was secretly filmed, which brought home the reality of life in Timor to the public in Britain for the first time. Following the film, thousands of people wrote in for more information or wrote directly to the Foreign Office to protest about British policy.

The most recent film in this collection, Stealing a Nation, is about people of whom most of the British public has probably never even heard. The media, especially television, has largely failed to report Britain’s forced depopulation of the Chagos islands, which includes Diego Garcia, now a US military base used for intervention in the Middle East. ‘What upsets you the most?’, Pilger asks Olivier Bancoult, the Chagossians’ leader in exile. ‘The lie that we didn’t exist’, he replies.

A secret document drawn up by British planners in 1968 was called ‘maintaining the fiction’, and argued (knowing it was untrue) that the Chagos islanders were not permanent inhabitants. The author, one Anthony Ivall Aust, then a legal adviser to the Foreign Office, was subsequently awarded a CMG in the Queen’s Birthday Honours. The story is a good indication of mainstream British political culture – buried in the media, the perpetrators of crimes against foreign unpeople shower honours on themselves while the US is appeased.

John Pilger’s films have been commercially successful and watched the world over. They give the lie to the argument that the public is disinterested in ‘serious issues’. Indeed, these films are a living indictment of the failure of mainstream television to reveal what is being done in our name. This collection should be viewed as a corrective to the stream of disinformation that we are otherwise bombarded with on television. It is worth dwelling for a moment on this point. The public is essentially kept in the dark about the reality of Britain’s – and the US’ – role in the world. Television is where many people get most of their information on what is happening in the world.

Yet in mainstream television, many Britain policies are simply not reported, relevant history is ignored and government statements are regularly parroted without criticism. The Glasgow University Media Group concludes that ‘the news is not a neutral and natural phenomenon; it is rather the manufactured production of ideology’. And that TV news is ‘a sequence of socially manufactured messages which carry many of the culturally dominant assumptions of our society’. On issues where the state is very sensitive, it notes that ‘the news can become almost one-dimensional – alternatives are reduced to fragments or disappear altogether’.

The ideological system promotes one key concept that underpins everything else – the idea of Britain’s basic benevolence. Mainstream reporting and analysis usually actively promotes, or at least does not challenge, the idea that Britain promotes high principles – democracy, peace, human rights and development – in its foreign policy. Criticism is certainly possible, and normal, but within narrow limits that show ‘exceptions’ to, or ‘mistakes’ in, promoting the rule of basic benevolence. It also means that government statements on  always noble intentions are invariably taken seriously and almost never ridiculed. These assumptions and ways of reporting are very deep-rooted.

Much television simply encourages us to disengage. It can convey that political forces are simply too great to be influenced by anyone. Or, more usually, simply fail to show what our – Britain’s – role is in whatever is being reported. This serves to pacify us, render us apathetic and simply as viewers rather than actors.

It is this ideological system that Pilger has successfully challenged in these films. They contribute to what the great Kenyan novelist Ngugi Wa Thiongo has called ‘decolonising the mind’. Ngugi was referring to Africans needing to free themselves from ideologies often subconsciously imposed under colonialism. But the British public needs, in my view, to do the same thing, and consciously unlearn most of what we have been informed about and ‘educated’ on regarding Britain’s role in the world. This is the corrective that Pilger’s films offer. Of course, by taking on the establishment (in the media as well as in government), Pilger has been regularly vilified and dismissed in the mainstream. There could be no higher accolade for a journalist – in what is simply an occupational hazard.

Pilger’s films are about people, and the effects on them of ‘our’ policies and priorities. Chagossians, Palestinians, Afghanis, Burmese, Cambodians, Vietnamese are centre-stage – the voiceless given a voice here. Pilger’s interviews with Palestinians in Palestine is Still the Issue are among the most moving, such as with Liana Badr, the Director of the Palestinian Cultural Centre, just after it has been hideously destroyed by Israeli soldiers. In Paying the Price, Pilger interviews doctors in Iraqi hospitals showing us their pitiful health facilities as a result of economic sanctions maintained on the country by the US and Britain. Although Saddam is gone, and Iraq now plunged into a further era of horror, this film of life under sanctions still demands to be watched. The British government, throughout the 1990s, contributed to the deaths of over a million people – a whole generation of Iraqis.

Are these really ‘documentaries that changed the world’? After all, horrible foreign policies are still being conducted in our name, notably currently in the Middle East. But I think Pilger’s films have helped make large numbers of people more politically conscious, indeed more angry, and they have contributed to a rising and more forceful public movement in more regular opposition to government policies. For example, the film Flying the Flag reveals Britain’s role in supplying arms to repressive regimes that abuse human rights, along with the corruption that often accompanies it. Terribly, this still goes on, but the hurdles governments need to overcome to flog arms to dictators are higher now thanks to increasing public scrutiny and opposition that makes it more difficult for governments to get away with their policies.

Unfortunately, even scandalous policies change only gradually – taking on powerful government and stopping their well-entrenched strategies is no easy thing. But the public is increasingly acting as a deterrent to the worst government policies. Massive public opposition to the recent invasion of Iraq failed to stop it; but what was stopped, at least temporarily, were well-laid British plans to join in other military interventions in the Middle East. As Britain’s leading ‘dissident’ film-maker, Pilger’s films have surely played a part in the development of this new radical sense among the public.

John Pilger’s films are empowering as well as enlightening. They can change our perceptions and ways of thinking about the world, which is the first step to changing the way we act as individuals in the world. There is much that we can do to change things for the better, and this collection of films from the past two decades of the British and US impact on the world provides us with the strongest reasons why we must.

Mark Curtis is an historian and journalist. His most recent books are Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses (Vintage, 2004) and Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World (Vintage, 2003).


  1. doug says:

    Just bought the DVD set of John Pilgers films. I would like to say that they are absolutely superb.

    All the best.


  2. Mike Hauxwell says:

    Just watched “stealing a Nation” and it did much to stoke my growing anger. I used to think Harold Wilson and Dennis Healey were not that bad; relatively…

    Excellent journalism and film-making, but its getting to the point were just watching and doing nothing, is simply not an option.

    In fact, it probably never has been.

  3. keith says:

    I finally read web of deceit from mark curtis, it was excellent and angry, please write a book about britain’s secret dealings with ireland

    I am reading unpeople by mark curtis then secret affairs

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