WHEN JOHN PILGER COVERED HIS first coroner’s court for the Sydney Sun, the newspaper to which he was inden-tured, he fainted. He was a 17- year- old cadet journalist as junior reporters were known in Australia in the 1950s. A shy, quiet boy, Pilger had to go down to the morgue with the court officials to view the deceased’s remains. "I passed out in the middle of this awful ritual," he says, adding that he actually fainted several times in his early days chasing fire engines.
It was an inauspicious start to a brilliant career.
An investigative reporter, distinguished war correspondent, award- winning film-maker and author of a dozen acclaimed books, 66-year-old Pilger has twice won British journalism's highest accolade, Journalist of the Year, and has just published a new book, Freedom Next Time. He has also been International Reporter of the Year and has won the United Nations Association Peace Prize and Gold Medal.
For his broadcasting work, he has won France’s Reporter San Frontires, an American television Academy Award, an Emmy and the BAFTA’s Richard Dimbleby Award. In 2003, he received the Sophie Prize "for 30 years of exposing deception and improv-ing human rights".
He has travelled the globe ceaselessly, exposing the evil that men do, bearing witness to man's inhumanity to man, giving the voiceless a voice and been an ever-present thorn in the side of governments, multi-nationals and the corporate world. In Freedom Next Time, he upholds this honourable tradition. He begins the book by declaring that it is "about empire, its facades and the enduring struggle of people for their freedom. It offers an antidote to authorised versions of contemporary history that censor by omission and impose double standards."
The book is made up of five essays, focusing on Chagossians, Palestinians, Afghans, South Africans and Indians. The essays have been hailed as "world-class journalism", particularly Stealing a Nation, the shocking story of the Chagossians, of whom many people have never even heard.
Shamefully, the media has largely failed to report this disgraceful story of how Britain ethnically cleansed the Chagos islands, in the Indian Ocean, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, in order to give them to the Americans, including Diego Garcia, now a US military base from which Iraq and Afghanistan have been attacked, and from which Pilger believes the US will bomb Iran. The Chagossians were black British citizens and had roots in the islands that went back to the 18th century. They spoke their own language and practised their own culture.
"Methodically, they were kidnapped by their own government and sent to exile in the slums of Mauritius, where untold numbers have wasted away, including children who died 'simply of sadness', as their mothers told me," says Pilger, telling of women so bereaved they slashed their wrists. A secret document drawn up by the British planners, in 1968, was called "maintaining the fiction", arguing (knowing it was untrue) that the islanders were not permanent inhabitants. It was a heinous crime against humanity, the most cynical of cover- ups.
The islanders have long battled for justice in the high court in London. "On May 11," Pilger explains, "two high court judges found unreservedly in their favour, describing the British government’s behaviour as illegal, repugnant and irrational." Does he think Tony Blair’s government will appeal yet again, knowing that the Americans are furious? "No, I don’t, but both governments do believe they can 'wear down' the islanders’ resolve. They are mistaken. 'I am going home,' they tell me. They are fighting."
The ironically-titled chapter Liberating Afghanistan has Pilger observing "reed- thin children like small phantoms" emerging from the bombed- out shell of a once grand palace on the edge of Kabul, victims of a forgotten war. A litany of tragedies follows. He learns of 35 women who jumped into a river along with their children and died to save themselves from warlords on a rampage of rape.
Do the stories he covers keep him awake at nights? Does writing about such suffering somehow ameliorate it?
"Of course, the people stay with you, but you’re right, writing about them does help. I’ve often thought in difficult situations, 'I won’t do this again,' but being able to pass it on to a public readership justifies my being there. I couldn’t go to these places and be, say, an aid worker. The purpose for my being there is as an agent of people outside. I believe so strongly that information is power."
Certainly, the nervous teenager, who fainted in that Sydney morgue almost 50 years ago, has – in Macbeth's words – supped full of horrors. Pilger has reported on atrocities in, for example, the Middle East, Nicaragua, Burma, Iraq and East Timor. Most famously, he covered the Vietnam war – a conflict that became the subject of five of his documentary films and some of his finest journalism. He has regularly stared death in the face.
As a journalist Pilger has always been there. He has watched history in the making and told us about it in crystalline, unadorned prose, an ability honed by his training on the Sydney Sun, where only the active voice was allowed, "therefore you had to state your source".
"If you wanted to use an adjective, you had to get special permission. I remember covering some awful disaster in a funfair. I was so moved by it I got permission from the chief sub- editor to use the word 'terrible'. Clichs were banned; I was so inexperienced I didn’t know what a clich was," he says.
"For years, I used to pore over my copy removing clichs. That made me the writer I am today and it taught me English, to use language that was disci-plined, simple, sparse."
As a war correspondent for the Daily Mirror, the paper for which he wrote for 23 years, he used that invaluable training when he reported from the front line in Cambodia during the Pol Pot years. His 1979 report on the genocide in Cambodia for the Mirror ran over 13 pages under the banner headline "Death of a Nation". The following day, another five pages were devoted to the second part of his story and photographer Eric Piper's graphic images.
It is inconceivable that any tabloid would devote so much space to a foreign story today, Pilger agrees, although he points out that during the red-top's editorship by Piers Morgan – "of all people!" – he was invited back to the Mirror to report on the Iraq war.
"It was extraordinary!" he exclaims. For 18 months, the paper returned to the glory days of real journalism and, as a reminder, Pilger has framed two front pages, which hang on a wall upstairs in his terrace house in south London, where I interview him.
The house is in a state of chaos – he's in the middle of having a new bathroom and kitchen installed, although I suspect that when order returns it will still lack a woman’s touch.
"Sorry about all of this," he says, looking helplessly at the litter of crockery and kitchen utensils on his living- room floor. The room is lined with books and artefacts from his travels. There are photographs everywhere of his daughter Zoe, 21, a student at Cambridge University, who is brimming with confidence. "I wish I had had that much confidence when I was her age," he says, adding that she intends to become a writer. He puts the word in quotation marks to show that she has no intentions of becoming a journalist, although her mother is the journalist, Yvonne Roberts. Pilger also has a son, Sam, a football writer, by his first wife, journalist Scarth Flett, from whom he is divorced. He has never married again.
When I ask if his career and all those long absences in the field took a toll on his private life, he replies guardedly: "That’s always the general assumption, but I think there were other reasons," he says quietly. "Many other reasons." End of conversation.
He will never give up journalism. "I intend to keep on going," he says.
Journalism, he believes, should give us a sense of the world. "It's the history of people, ordinary people." He has no truck with the cult-of-personality columnists, or journalists constantly writing about themselves and their angst-ridden lives. "Why are these people telling us about themselves and their families? I can’t read it. This trend is so wrong."
The journalist's role remains – in WH Auden’s phrase – "To undo the folded lie," he maintains. Who knows this better than Pilger, who has spent a lifetime righting – and writing – wrongs and chronicling history as it happened? He was standing next to Robert Kennedy when he was shot in 1968 in the kitchens of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, and he watched the younger brother of the assassinated JFK die.
He reported on the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
He was there when the British mining industry died. He’s told of the plight of the Aboriginal people in his own country, disclosing how the Australian government concealed a "hidden black Australia" behind its picture postcard presentation of the Sydney ("isn’t the harbour glorious?") Olympics, telling of collusion between the state and academics in admitting that past generations committed acts of genocide against the Aboriginal peoples.
Tall, thin and hawkish with pale blue eyes and thinning silvery hair, Pilger is a contained, serious man who speaks softly, thoughtfully considering his answers to questions before responding in his measured Australian accent, which he's never lost. He is modest about his achievements. I ask him whether it was always his ambition to become a campaigning journalist. "Never!" he responds.
"In any case, I’ve never seen myself as a campaigning journalist. A maverick, yes. But I’m a reporter and I’ll always be a reporter, forever curious. And, I suppose, if anything drives me it’s curiosity.
"All I ever wanted when I was growing up was to become a journalist and to travel the world. I even started my own newspaper, The Messenger, at school when I was 12, with another boy and his dad. It was a pretty popular paper, I can tell you. It had the proto-type of the celebrity interview. I became famous for getting interviews with famous people. I got an inter-view with a much-loved radio personality, who was having a battle with the press. A great scoop! I don’t know why, but I always loved newspapers, the feel of them, the look of them, the smell of them. When I got my job on the Sydney Sun, it was just like being in that film, The Front Page."
After his four-year cadetship he left Australia and went to Italy where he freelanced, then travelled to London, joining the Mirror, "which in those days was a fine newspaper, respectable, committed to real stories". Always left-leaning, does he see himself as a political journalist?
"Well, I’ve never been a member of any political party, nor have I been part of any campaigning corporate structure," he says.
And that, he reckons, is what gets up some people’s noses about his journalism, his dogged desire to tell the truth, his conviction that journalism is the history of tomorrow, and that facts are his greatest weapon as he rails against hypocrisy and – most recently – the obfuscation and lies surrounding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He has been accused of "pilgerising" – "presenting information in a sensationalist manner to reach a foregone conclusion" – and, in his determination to expose the abuses of power and the horrors inflicted on the abused, of not even paying lip service to balance. Too often, though, he has found, some stories simply don’t have two sides.
"I stand by every word I’ve ever written. I can back everything up with facts. I have never made the facts fit an agenda, unlike the corporate media. But, if I didn’t annoy all the right people all the time, I would be very upset," he says, quoting "the great Irish muck-racker" Claud Cockburn: "Never believe anything until it is officially denied."
He wrote in the Guardian recently that this truism is the inspiration for Freedom Next Time and that "those of us responsible for keeping the record straight ought to have that tattooed somewhere where it shows in the mirror each morning."
Earlier, I asked him if he had ever been frightened when reporting from the world’s trouble spots. (He has also been threatened, warned his name is on certain "lists".) "I’ll tell you what I do fear – smearing. Most of the smear stuff thrown at me has just been abuse. But I fear serious smearing, being set up and led into situations, that trap always awaits journalists who take on serious investigative work."
Recently, he returned from filming high in the Andes. He is working on a new film – for screening in cinemas – The War on Democracy. In it he will do what he’s always done, refuse to accept the press- release version of events. "It’s old- fashioned journalism, but it’s what I do, what I’ll always do – ask questions, not the blustering questions that the BBC specialise in. My questions do not have a tone of voice. I simply call people to account with facts."
The calling to account is essential to him. Where does it come from, this burning desire to see justice done? His carpenter father, Claude, was a member of the International Workers of the World, the famous Wobblies, and his school teacher mother, Elsie, was the youngest graduate of Sydney University at 16. Her family never forgave their only educated girl for marrying a "Bolshie".
For his 1986 book, Heroes, Pilger interviewed his parents, who had separated, although he remained close to both of them. He says: "My brother Graham I and were fortunate to have very political parents – socialists. I’ve always felt a kind of osmosis influence from them both. If there was any ethos when I was growing up in our modest home, it was that we were on the side of the underdog."
Underdogs everywhere must be grateful to Claude and Elsie Pilger.
• Freedom Next Time, by John Pilger is published by Bantam Press, priced 17.99.