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Beneath the surface

Tell Me No Lies: Investigative Journalism and its Triumphs

Edited by John Pilger

Vintage Paperback, 2005, £8.99

Reviewed by

Dave Gorton

"THE SATELLITE news says the ceasefire is holding and George Bush tells the troops… ‘I know what we’re doing in Iraq is right’. Shooting unarmed men in the back outside their homes is right? Shooting grandmothers with white flags is right? Shooting at women and children who are fleeing is right? Firing at ambulances is right?

"Well, George, I know too now. I know what it looks like when you brutalise people so much that they’ve nothing left to lose. I know what it looks like when an operation is being done without anaesthetic because the hospitals are destroyed or under sniper fire and the city’s under siege… I know what it looks like when tracer bullets are passing your head, even though you’re in an ambulance… It’s a crime and it’s a disgrace to us all".

So ends Jo Wilding’s 2004 piece, Eyewitness in Falluja, one of 29 contributions in this excellent collection.

It is easy to forget that, even while the media are concentrated in the hands of individual moguls upholding the ‘values’ of capitalism and generally attacking those who hold socialist or ‘liberal’ views, there have always been journalists who will not be quietened and use their talents to expose state repression and often the ruthless ambitions of capitalism.

Tell Me No Lies includes pieces on many of the flashpoints in the world over the last 60 years and readers will not be surprised to see this cover Vietnam, Iraq, McCarthyism and South Africa under apartheid. What is refreshing is to see articles on Indonesia and East Timor, the attempted pillorying of Arthur Scargill, the 2000 US presidential elections, and Chechnya.

One of the shorter pieces, Mark Curtis’s Complicity in a Million Deaths, written on the release of British governmental papers 30 years after the brutal takeover of Indonesia, details the ‘stand aside’ position of the US, British and Australian governments in a reign of terror directed against the PKI (the Indonesian Communist Party) in 1965.

Hundreds of thousands of PKI members, supporters and sympathisers were ritually slaughtered by General Suharto and his forces. The massacre was fully known by western states. The US ambassador in Indonesia at the time said: "[The] Army has… been working hard at destroying PKI and I, for one, have increasing respect for its determination and organisation in carrying out this crucial assignment". A British official is reported as saying: "Some victims are given a knife and invited to kill themselves. Most refuse and are told to turn around and are shot in the back".

Some of the essays cover a whole conflict or period of history, such as Curtis’s on Indonesia. Others cover individual episodes. The celebrated American journalist Seymour M Hersh’s 1970 piece, The Massacre at My Lai, concentrates on the systematic murder carried out by US troops in one village during the Vietnam war. Don’t expect to read this without tears of rage. A whole community – the old, women and babies – slaughtered by an American unit.

Hersh’s essay finishes with a quote from a GI present at My Lai: "The people didn’t know what they were dying for and the guys didn’t know why they were shooting them". This could have been a quote from any one of the increasing number of military personnel who are wondering just why they are now in Iraq.

To be expected in such a collection, much of the work deals with the horrors of war and the atrocities committed. For the most part, such atrocities are kept from the world’s population at the time not through a lack of information – many of these journalists were ‘on the ground’ – but through state censorship.

Many of the journalists appear as shocked and dismayed as their readers were when articles were first published. Part of this is clearly through the extreme circumstances prevalent in, say, Cambodia, Rwanda or Hitler’s Germany, but some is down to the fact that even the most liberal journalists have not embraced socialism as an alternative.

Therefore, the fact that ‘leaders’ and ‘people’ can act in such indiscriminate, murderous fashion, continues to surprise them, rather than them understanding it as an horrific, but eminently logical extension of the despotism of the (mainly) capitalist system.

Many regular readers of Socialism Today will remember the pioneering work of John Pilger on Cambodia, published in the Daily Mirror at the turn of the 1970s/80s. The vicious regime of Pol Pot announced ‘Year Zero’ and cleared, literally, the cities, forcefully ‘repatriating’ people to the countryside. Money became worthless – millions of banknotes were left lying around the streets and used to make cooking fires.

The situation in Cambodia stemmed from US bombing – nominally called a mistake by the US administration but far too widespread to be believed – during the war against neighbouring Vietnam. In fact, it is estimated that US bombs killed 600,000 Cambodians. Pol Pot and his supporters claimed some ‘Marxist-Leninist’ background by being supporters of Mao Zedong but never before had Marxism been so abused. Pol Pot had no popular support in Cambodia but there was no recognisable opposition against his vicious forces. The population was undoubtedly opposed to American bombing and fearful of invasion. But it was pure terror that made them follow the instructions of Pol Pot.

As Pilger relates, the Khmer Rouge entered Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh on 17 April 1975 and ‘temporarily’ emptied the city. On 7 January 1979, the Vietnamese Army found Phnom Penh almost exactly as it had been left – an empty ghost town.

But, and this is where Pilger, as opposed to some others in this collection, stands out as more than just a ‘liberal’, the part of his essay dealing with the ‘rehabilitation’ of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge amongst the leaders of the western world is crucial.

His exposé of what happened after the Vietnamese had liberated Cambodia is a brilliant piece of journalism that highlights just how capitalism can adapt. How the system, for instance, can feel comfortable with an ex-Nazi sympathiser, Kurt Waldheim, as leader of the United Nations; how today the world’s only superpower can be comfortable with leaders at the helm who deny Darwinism and return to a backward, religious outlook; how it could spend years and millions of dollars supporting al-Qa’ida and right-wing political Islam without shame only to then feel the murderous backlash and try to hide its previous support and financial backing.

Pilger correctly says that the Vietnamese, who "had driven the Americans from their homeland, were not to be acknowledged in any way as liberators". The British and Americans voted in the UN to legitimise the defeated regime of Pol Pot. Because of this, the World Health Organisation was prevented from going to Cambodia to investigate a suspected re-emergence of smallpox because it was not ‘recognised’.

In an amazing interview on Blue Peter, the British children’s programme, Margaret Thatcher said: "Some of the Khmer Rouge of course are very different. I think there are probably two parts to the Khmer Rouge; those who supported Pol Pot and then there is a much, much more reasonable group within the Khmer Rouge".

The Socialist, the weekly paper of the Socialist Party in England and Wales, and the publications of our sister organisations grouped under the umbrella of the Committee for a Workers International, encourage news and articles from members and other workers. Trotsky once said: "Without fact, there is no real reporting… But the interesting facts can be noted and singled out only if the worker correspondent has a point of view".

We do not expect the majority of our members to have journalistic skills on a level with some of the famous names in Tell Me No Lies, but we have a ‘point of view’ – often sadly lacking from even the very best correspondents – gained through a grounding in Marxism and our experiences of the struggles of daily life.

Tell Me No Lies is still an excellent volume, affordable to most at £8.99.


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