Review: Tell Me No Lies, Investigative Journalism and its Triumphs, edited by John Pilger

When most of the world’s mass media is firmly "embedded" into the thinking of governments and the big business interests that lie behind them, the publication of a collection of some of the greatest pieces of investigative journalism could not come sooner.

The award-winning writer John Pilger brings together in Tell Me No Lies vital reporting from around the world since World War Two. Running at 600 pages this highly rewarding book can be dipped into time and again.

Pilger’s general introduction and his prefaces to each article are very useful in setting the work of the reporters in their historical context. Not surprisingly, given that they are exposing the hypocrisy and barbarism of governments and capitalist institutions, many of the journalists are to the left politically, but not all of them.

What links the writers are qualities like honesty, integrity, bravery, and a sense of justice. Many pieces are also models of brilliant and powerful journalism. In some cases, the work of these journalists provoked uproar and forced a change of government or big business policy.

To determinedly pursue their stories, most of the writers featured had to overcome huge obstacles put in their way by powerful interests, like governments and big business. Some put their lives on the line, such as Pilger himself, when he revealed to the world the barbarism committed by the Western-backed Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the 1970s.

Many of the writers in the collection were persecuted or forced to flee by right-wing government forces. In comparison, most journalists writing today appear as unprincipled sycophants of the establishment.

Issues like imperialist wars, genocide, class struggle and counter-revolution, and the damage and destruction of big business, recur in Pilger’s collection.

At the close of World War Two, Martha Gelhorn gives a chilling account of the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. Wilfred Burchett goes against the wishes of the allied powers to reveal the destruction wrought by the atomic bomb in Hiroshima.

James Cameron and Seymour M Hersh expose US imperialist policy in Vietnam. Max du Preez and Jacques Pauw confront South Africa’s apartheid death squads. Anna Politkovskaya describes the "dirty war" in Chechnya (1999-2002). Mark Curtis gives an excellent account of the West’s complicity in the death of a million Communist Party supporters in Indonesia in the 1960s. And Amira Hass writes about life for Palestinians under Israeli occupation.

Examples are given of attempts by governments and big business to cover up their cynical policies. Gunter Wallraff pretends to be an immigrant worker in Germany to show their awful plight. Paul Foot asks who was really behind the Lockerbie bombing and what did imperialist powers have to hide? Seumas Milne exposes the "secret war" by the British intelligence services and other right-wing forces against Arthur Scargill and the miners.

Phillip Knightly indicts the pharmaceutical companies behind the thalidomide scandal. Greg Palast condemns the stealing of the 2000 US presidential elections by the Republicans. Eric Schlosser shocks with his first-hand account of the fast food industry. And David Armstrong traces the decades-long aims of leading neo-cons in the US for "global dominance".

The final section of the book is made up of six pieces on reporting the truth about Iraq (1998-2004), including articles by Robert Fisk. These show the terrible human cost of sanctions, the lies and propaganda used by the USA and Britain to wage war on the Iraqi people, and the bloody slaughter taking place today.

In his introduction, John Pilger points out that the mass media, despite its big technological advances, is more under the influence of establishment interests than previously. It is now extremely difficult for genuine investigative journalism to be heard.

To end the billionaires’ domination of the means of mass communication, the socialist calls for the capitalist media to be taken into public hands, under workers’ democratic control. Also, in the future, big class struggles and the creation of new mass workers’ organisations will see the creation of a socialist mass media.

Pilger advocates grass-roots, internet journalism as one alternative to the current domination of the news by the Murdochs of the world. Certainly the internet can play a powerful role.

The Socialist Party, and the Committee for a Workers’ International, are developing socialist websites that can directly reach many workers and youth with the truth and with a class analysis. Also, the socialist is an indispensable paper for many working people. Through media like these, investigative journalism also finds a voice.

Tell Me No Lies – Investigative Journalism and Its Triumphs, edited by John Pilger, Jonathan Cape, 2004. £20.

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December 2004