The FOX Threat

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remains one of the few countries where documentaries are still shown
on mainstream television in the hours when most people are awake.
But documentaries that go against the received wisdom and inform
are becoming an endangered species, at the very time we need them
most. That will be a tragedy; for viewers in this country are not
only used to but support an eclectic range of programmes, unlike
the United States where people expect television to be little more
than a shopping mall with buskers. Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Channel,
a parody of journalism, fits this perfectly; and he wants us to
have the same.

survey after survey, when people are asked what they would like
more of on television; they say documentaries. I don’t believe they
mean cod-documentaries about airports and estate agents. Nor do
they mean a type of "current affairs" that is a platform
for politicians and establishment "experts" and merely
gestures at the truth, striking a specious balance between great
power and its victims, between oppressors and the oppressed. They
mean what James Cameron called "truth telling journalism captured
on film": documentaries that are the antithesis of news: that
strip away the faades of "official truth" and rescue
unpalatable facts and historical context from the memory hole to
which "impartial" news has consigned them. The Indian
writer Vandana Shiva had this in mind when she described, "the
insurrection of subjugated knowledge" against the "dominant
knowledge" of rapacious power. Had it not been for Death on
the Rock and John Ware’s A Licence to Murder, many of us would not
have known the secret criminal role of the British state in the
war in Northern Ireland.

opponents of this kind of truly independent television journalism
have never been better organised or more vocal. My last two documentaries
for ITV, Breaking the Silence and Palestine is still the Issue,
were subjected to orchestrated, political, often vicious campaigns
of complaint, originating mainly in America where neither film was
shown. The Independent Television Commission investigated nevertheless,
and my producer and I had to explain and justify almost every sequence,
fact and source. The process took a total of six months, at the
end of which the ITC concluded that both films were balanced, fair
and accurate; the Palestine film was praised for "the thoroughness
of its research and its integrity." The would-be censors are
not only the frenetic emailers of the American Zionist groups, but
also those liberal establishment journalists in this country campaigning
to rescue a discredited prime minister. These tribunes have been
in print lately bemoaning the media’s influence over "politics"
(they mean Blair’s lies over Iraq) and demanding that journalists
return to "basic values" (self-censorship). Ron Nail’s
report for the BBC, a reaction to the Hutton whitewash, is part
of this; BBC journalists who offend the government had better watch

looking-glass aspect of all this is that the great majority of the
British media, especially the BBC, dutifully channelled and echoed
the government’s pre-invasion lies, instead of challenging and exposing
them, as journalists in a real democracy should do. According to
Charles Lewis, the former star American television journalist now
running an independent investigative unit in Washington, the Center
for Public Integrity, Iraq would not have been attacked had American
journalists done their job and alerted the public to the fakery
of Bush and Blair.

that be said of British journalism? Not quite; the Independent and
the Daily Mirror broke ranks and, now and then, the Guardian. But
British broadcasting, the source of most people’s information, was
largely embedded and supine, with honourable exceptions like ITV’s
Terry Lloyd, who paid with his life. However, of all the world’s
major broadcasters, according to a Media Tenor study, the BBC covered
anti-war dissent less than all of them — less than even the American
networks. In other words, the views of the majority of Britons were
ignored. All that stuff about impartiality is, of course, stuff.
The BBC, in its language, emphasis and omissions, has supported
every war in memory. Post-Hutton, even its honourable exceptions
are silent.

I see it, only documentaries can make sense of the "war on
terror," of Iraq, Guantanamo Bay and the other impositions
of rampant power that now touch all our lives. And yet within the
industry, there is a resistance to documentaries that has a familiar
echo: "They don’t rate." As Channel Four has found, they
have often rated better than certain game shows and "reality"
programmes. But that is not the point. Documentaries do rate in
a way that cries out for recognition. Death of a Nation: the Timor
Conspiracy, which I made in 1994 with David Munro, was followed
by phone calls from the public at the rate of 4,000 calls a minute,
according to BT, and this continued well after midnight. When an
updated version was shown four years later, more than 150,000 calls
were registered within 25 seconds of the credits. This grew to half
a million within the hour. And this was a film about a tiny country
few knew existed and hardly anyone had heard of. In contrast, the
producers of Neighbours from Hell, which went to air in the same
week and whose conventional ratings were higher, received about
a dozen calls.

point is that the quality of the public’s response to powerful documentaries
is at least as important a measure of popularity, of public interest,
as the ratings. That is also true of the political response. Consider
the reaction to The Secret Policeman, Mark Daly’s extraordinary
and brave undercover expos of police racism. This does not mean
that documentary makers can rest their case on the worthiness of
"public service broadcasting." Viewers nowadays are not
prepared to accept a paternalistic notion that harks back to Lord
Reith, the BBC’s founder and author of inspired forms of establishment
propaganda. That endures, alongside a corporatism exemplified by
the values of Murdoch, which Blair promised to uphold long before
he came to power. In recently announcing "less intrusion,"
the government’s new regulator, Ofcom, is making good on that promise.
Viewers deserve better; and true documentary makers, indeed all
broadcasters, have a special responsibility to fight their corner
as never before.

10, 2004

was born and educated in Sydney, Australia. He has been
a war correspondent, filmmaker and playwright. Based in London,
he has written from many countries and has twice won British journalism’s
highest award, that of "Journalist of the Year," for his
work in Vietnam and Cambodia. This article was first published in
the Independent.

John Pilger 2004

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