We consume journalistic opinions on contemporary events almost without realizing it, or perhaps we used to. We expect commentators to express their view, which we then absorb. We agree with it or differ and then move on, often to the next so-called analysis. Of course these views influence our thoughts, but we are critically aware, and accept that not everyone thinks as we do.
It is quite rare to find collections of such pieces, however, rarer to assemble them long after the events they describe and rarer still to produce, as a result, a book which is worth reading from cover to cover. Hidden Agendas by John Pilger is such a book. And reading Hidden Agendas with today’s label “fake news” in mind is both and enlightening and rewarding.
First published in 1998, Hidden Agendas collects pieces by its author on various topics, their subjects spanning several decades. There are pieces on the Cold War and, importantly, on the struggle for independence of the East Timorese, going right back to 1974 and the collapse of what was left of the Portuguese Empire. John Pilger also describes his own country’s, Australia’s, relations with its own identity and its indigenous peoples. He travels to Burma to describe daily life as well as its poisoned politics and offers analysis that from today’s perspective is no less than fascinating. He describes the start of the UK’s Blair era, with New Labour’s leader declaring his intention to realize a Thatcherite dream. We revisit the miners’ strike in the mid-1980s, already viewed from a distance of 15 years. He also touches on the Hillsborough tragedy in a piece on the Sun’s journalism and reminds us that on Merseyside the newspaper is still vilified today because of its coverage of these events. Ironic isn’t it that’s a contemporary reader can now look back at this analysis from 20 years ago, knowing that for the victims of Hillsborough an inquiry has finally delivered justice, whereas for those of vilified and imprisoned after Orgreave an inquiry is still denied. It seems perverse that justice seems to need deaths.
But by far the most interesting parts of Hidden Agendas are those the deal with the author’s autobiographical accounts of working as a journalist. He begins in Australia, where the media were owned by cartels whose interests they largely promoted. He moved to UK, where something similar was evolving. John Pilger’s description of life in the Daily Mirror is thoroughly engaging, and impresses because there is a genuine feeling that the newspaper was interested in truth first and posturing second. He offers a convincing defence of the Mirror’s campaigning style and then laments that by 1998 the newspaper had already become just one of the rest.
John Pilger’s often biting criticisms of the print media are, if anything, even more poignant in today’s online jungle. At least the media owners he describes were largely self-declared in their allegiances, to such an extent that the posturing was often predictable. In today’s Internet miasma, where populism seems to rule and where the origins of opinions are often hard to identify, it is useful to be reminded by John Pilger that the opinion presented as opinion can never be “fake news”, whatever that might be. Opinion masquerading as “fact” is quite simply a lie.
The political Right has never been impressed with John Pilger’s work. But whatever one thinks about the content of his opinion pieces, Hidden Agendas illustrates that he does not give up on causes. The long, hard and largely unnoticed battle on East Timor testifies to his commitment to justice on behalf of those denied it. And, on topics such as the Hillsborough tragedy, mainstream media, at the time, may even have branded Pilger’s position as extreme, or even as “fake news”, since it contradicted the trumped-up story being peddled by the mainstream media. Reading these opinion pieces by John Pilger, one is presented with the contemporary reality that “fake news” is probably opinion that someone doesn’t like, opinion that is more easily dismissed with a label rather than by counter argument. Hidden Agendas also reminds it that the only important opinions of those that are proven correct.