John Pilger, high-profile journalist who exposed abuses, dies at 84

John Pilger, a crusading journalist and documentarian who helped expose state-sanctioned brutality and human-rights abuses in Cambodia and East Timor, even as he faced criticism over factual errors and accusations that he let his left-wing political views unfairly shape his reporting, died Dec. 30 at a hospital in London. He was 84.

The cause was pulmonary fibrosis, said his son, Sam Pilger.

In columns, articles, books and television documentaries, Mr. Pilger campaigned to expose government wrongdoing and corruption, traveling around the world to report on the Vietnam War, the “killing fields” of Cambodia, the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the dispossessed Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank. His work brought him a heap of journalism awards as well as scorn and derision, as critics said that he was less a reporter than a polemicist, motivated by a belief that Western governments were to blame for some of the 20th century’s worst human rights abuses.

An Australian native who was based in Britain for most of his career, Mr. Pilger was quick to distance himself from most reporters in the mainstream media, whom he considered stenographers for the wealthy and powerful.

“It is not enough for journalists to see themselves as mere messengers, without understanding the hidden agendas of the message and the myths that surround it,” he wrote in 1998. “High on the list is the myth that we now live in an ‘information age’ — when, in fact, we live in a media age, in which the available information is repetitive, ‘safe’ and limited by invisible boundaries.”

Mr. Pilger (pronounced PILL-jer) was only 27, serving as chief foreign correspondent of the Daily Mirror tabloid, when he was honored at the British Press Awards as 1967’s Journalist of the Year, cited for his dispatches from the Vietnam War. He was honored with the prize a second time for his 1979 reporting on the Khmer Rouge, the communist regime that ruled Cambodia for four years under the dictator Pol Pot.

Other reporters, including Elizabeth Becker of The Washington Post and Sydney H. Schanberg of the New York Times, had reported on the dictatorship’s brutality. But Mr. Pilger was widely credited with helping bring wider attention to the Cambodian genocide, which took the lives of an estimated 2 million people, nearly a quarter of the country’s population.

Mr. Pilger said he wanted “to put Cambodia back on the human map” through his reporting, which included articles in the Mirror — an entire issue of the newspaper was devoted to his work — and a documentary, “Year Zero: The Silent Death of Cambodia” (1979), directed by his friend David Munro. Filmed in Cambodia shortly after Vietnamese forces removed the Khmer Rouge from power, the documentary featured interviews with survivors, including two artists who, because they made flattering busts and paintings of Pol Pot, were among the only members of a 12,000-person group to survive the mass killings, forced labor, starvation and disease.

The film reportedly raised more than $45 million in aid for Cambodia, including millions of dollars in small donations collected by British schoolchildren.

Mr. Pilger and Munro later collaborated on documentaries including “Death of a Nation” (1994), about Indonesia’s 1975 invasion of East Timor and the bloody occupation that ensued. The filmmakers arrived in East Timor covertly, posing as officials with a travel firm, and used small camcorders to document the aftermath of attacks around the island, including a massacre of as many as 200 pro-independence demonstrators at a cemetery in Dili, the capital.

To peers such as Martha Gellhorn, the renowned American war correspondent, Mr. Pilger was “a brave and invaluable witness to his time.” His journalism brought him honors including a Peabody Award, for the documentary “Cambodia: Year Ten” (1989), about the legacy of the Khmer Rouge; an International Emmy Award for “Cambodia: The Betrayal” (1990), about fears that Pol Pot and his allies would return to power; and the 2009 Sydney Peace Prize, for “enabling the voices of the powerless to be heard.”

Yet detractors said that Mr. Pilger’s work was often filled with more righteous anger than rational analysis, and argued that for all his criticism of Western powers, he was prone to overlook abuses by repressive leaders such as Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Vladimir Putin of Russia. Many critics took issue with the blame he apportioned for the Cambodian genocide, which he laid in large part at the feet of American leaders who authorized the bombing of the country during the Vietnam War.

“Cambodia’s Holocaust was as much America’s doing as it was Pol Pot’s,” he wrote in a 1990 feature for the Guardian. The remark represented a case of “moral relativity gone haywire,” wrote British journalist William Shawcross, who had worked as a reporter in Cambodia, in an essay for the Observer newspaper.

“Pilger often spoils his case by insisting on his monopoly of wisdom, by abuse of those who disagree with him, by dealing in emotions as much as facts, and by seeing everything through a prism of anti-Americanism that is distorting,” Shawcross said.

Mr. Pilger’s journalistic reputation was damaged by a number of high-profile screw-ups, including a 1991 libel case in which he was found to have defamed two former British soldiers through one of his Cambodia documentaries, which alleged that the men were training Khmer Rouge guerrillas to lay land mines. The London Evening Standard reported that Mr. Pilger had never met the two men and had “made no attempt to talk” until encountering them in court. He agreed to an apology and retraction, and each of the men was reportedly awarded about 100,000 pounds in damages.

The libel case followed a disastrous 1982 Daily Mirror feature that Mr. Pilger wrote about child slavery in Thailand, in which he reported that he had bought an enslaved 8-year-old named Sunee — at a cost of 85 pounds — and then reunited her with her mother in a village outside Bangkok. The story gained international attention and was soon shown to be untrue: The Far East Economic Review reported that Mr. Pilger had hired a fixer, a local taxi driver, to help with the story, and found that the enterprising driver had located a schoolgirl in Bangkok and paid her family to play along with the ruse.

Mr. Pilger claimed that attempts to discredit the story were “overblown, spiteful and craven.” He later said that he had been duped by the fixer. The case prompted Auberon Waugh, a journalist and satirist, to coin a new verb: “to pilger,” for which he jokingly offered the definition, “to seek to arouse indignation by inflated or absurd propositions” or “to distort in a tendentious way.”

The term made it into a reference book, the Oxford Dictionary of New Words, only for the editors to announce in 1994 that it would be withdrawn from subsequent editions after complaints from Mr. Pilger.

By then, some of his admirers had sought to reclaim the term. Journalist Phillip Knightley wrote in to the Spectator magazine to offer a definition of his own: “The verb ‘to pilger,’” he declared, “means to regard with insight, compassion and sympathy.”

John Richard Pilger was born in Bondi, a suburb of Sydney, on Oct. 9, 1939. His mother was a schoolteacher, his father a carpenter and trade unionist.

Mr. Pilger started a student newspaper at his Sydney high school and completed a four-year journalism apprenticeship with Australian Consolidated Press. He wrote for the Daily and Sunday Telegraph in Sydney, briefly tried freelancing in Italy and moved to London in 1962, working for Reuters before joining the Daily Mirror as a reporter in 1963, just as the tabloid was expanding its coverage of national and foreign affairs.

Within a few years, he was reporting overseas. He came to the United States to report on civil rights and was at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles the night that presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, the U.S. senator and former attorney general, was fatally shot.

Mr. Pilger began working on documentaries in the 1970s, tackling subjects that included the devastating effects of thalidomide, a once widely-used drug marketed to pregnant women, and the history of Aboriginal Australians. He was let go from the Daily Mirror in the mid-1980s, after clashing with new publisher Robert Maxwell, and later worked as a columnist for the New Statesman.

His marriage to Scarth Flett ended in divorce. In addition to his son Sam, a sportswriter, survivors include Mr. Pilger’s partner of more than 30 years, Jane Hill; a daughter, novelist and art critic Zoe Pilger, from a relationship with journalist Yvonne Roberts; and two grandchildren.

Late in life, Mr. Pilger campaigned for the release of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is fighting extradition from Britain to the United States and has been charged under the Espionage Act. “If Julian Assange is extradited to the U.S., the very idea of a journalism that’s free is lost,” he told the Independent newspaper in 2021. “No journalist who dares to challenge rapacious power and reveal the truth will be safe.”

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