Recently declassified files show how the UK government covertly monitored Australian journalist John Pilger, and sought to discredit him by encouraging media contacts to attack him in the press.
Pilger, who died in London on 30 December at the age of 84, was best known for his numerous documentaries exposing US, UK and Australian government policies.
His film, Stealing a Nation, showed how Britain expelled the native population of the Chagos Islands to make way for a US military base, while Death of a Nation exposed how the genocide in East Timor “happened with the connivance of Britain, the US, and Australia”.
In 1975, the Foreign Office’s secret cold war propaganda unit, the Information Research Department (IRD), opened a file on Pilger.
That year, IRD official Mrs J. O’Connor Howe complained that Pilger’s television programme broadcast in the UK, “A Nod and a Wink”, had given “entirely sympathetic treatment to the Shrewsbury pickets”, when several trade unionists were wrongfully convicted and imprisoned.
Howe added: “It must be hoped that John Pilger and his sort do not become influential in their current affairs coverage”. Another official responded that “Pilger’s nods and winks need more careful watching”.
Though the IRD was shut down in 1977, Pilger’s file was transferred to its successor organisation, the Special Production Unit (SPU), and the Foreign Office continued to track his movements over the following years.
The documentaries covered Washington’s secret bombing campaign of Cambodia during the Vietnam War, and the partial responsibility of the US and Britain for the brutality under the Pol Pot regime.
Throughout this period, the UK government monitored Pilger’s activities and plotted to launch counter-measures against him.
The office of then prime minister Margaret Thatcher privately asked the British embassy in Bangkok for “information on Pilger’s journalistic background”.
“Thatcher’s office asked for information on Pilger’s background”
It specifically requested “examples of any Pilger material on Vietnam/Cambodia over the period 1968-78, and examples of his work criticising UK domestic policies”.
In September 1980, Thomas J. Duggin, a British embassy official in Bangkok, noted that Pilger’s work on Cambodia “deserves a rejoinder [response] before his film is shown – a subject worthy of Peter Joy’s attention perhaps”.
Peter Joy was no ordinary diplomat. He had been the head of the IRD’s top-secret Special Editorial Unit (SEU), which planned and executed “black propaganda” operations worldwide against those deemed to threaten Britain’s interests.
In this effort, the SEU worked closely with MI6 to produce reports from fake sources and fictitious organisations, and planted strategically valuable information into the press.
What Duggin was seemingly suggesting, in other words, was that the Foreign Office covertly inspire a hit-job on Pilger prior to the release of his film.
The Foreign Office subsequently compiled a charge sheet on Pilger, and sought out a journalist who would be prepared to carry out a “hatchet job” on him.
Such an article could draw on “the commentaries from the two Bangkok Embassies [the UK and the US] to counter the impressions created by Pilger’s reporting”.
The embassy also obtained information from “one of Pilger’s associates” who privately told them “about his motives and activities” in the region. It is unclear who this was.
Ultimately, “the reluctance of one journalist” to carry out the hatchet job scuppered the Foreign Office plan to counter Pilger’s reporting on Cambodia.
It nonetheless remains unclear whether the Foreign Office succeeded elsewhere in inspiring attack pieces on Pilger.
Many of the documents in Pilger’s file have been removed, with some due to remain classified until 2041.
‘I can only burst out laughing’
The Foreign Office frequently discussed Pilger in seething terms. His work on Southeast Asia read like a “cynical voice from the Kremlin”, one Foreign Office official argued, with another complaining that it “looks like a PR job on behalf of Hanoi and Moscow”.
Before his passing, Pilger responded to these revelations: “Some of the documents on me going back to the eighties – and that was when I was reporting from Southeast Asia, Cambodia, Vietnam.
“My reporting, which was really exclusive, it was telling people something that they didn’t know, it was exposing a great deal, it was exposing the tyrants, but it was also exposing who was backing the tyrants secretly – it’s rather embarrassing.
“I was described in one of these documents as pro-Kremlin. I mean, when I read this I, I say many years later, I can only burst out laughing… But we must never make light of it”.
John Pilger privately told this author that he was aware of a Foreign Office campaign against him, linked to the US, but had few supporting documents.
“The stories of mine that stung them was their involvement with the Khmer Rouge and Suharto’s war on East Timor”, he said.