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John Pilger was trained as a newspaper journalist at Australian Consolidated Press in Sydney. “It was one of the strictest language courses I know,” he says. “Devised by a celebrated, highly literate editor, Brian Penton, the aim was economy of language and accuracy. It certainly taught me to admire writing that was spare, precise and free of cliches, and to use adjectives only when absolutely necessary. I have long since slipped Brian Penton’s leash, but those early disciplines helped shape my journalism and writing style.”
Pilger became a reporter and feature writer on the Sydney Sunday Telegraph. Within a couple of years, like many of his Australian generation, he and two colleagues left for Europe. They set up an ill-fated freelance ‘agency’ in Italy (with the grand title of ‘Interep’) and quickly went broke. Arriving in London, Pilger freelanced for magazines, then joined Reuters, moving to the Daily Mirror, Britain’s biggest selling newspaper, which was then changing to a serious tabloid.
He became a feature writer, then special correspondent and chief international correspondent. He reported from all over the world and covered numerous wars, notably Vietnam. Still in his twenties, he became the youngest journalist to receive Britain’s highest award for journalism, that of Journalist of the Year. (He became the first to win it twice). Moving to the United States, he reported the upheavals there in the late 1960s and 1970s. He marched with America’s poor from Alabama to Washington, following the assassination of Martin Luther King. He was in the same room when Robert Kennedy, the presidential candidate, was assassinated in June 1968.
His work in South East Asia produced a memorable issue of the Daily Mirror, devoted almost entirely to his world exclusive dispatches from Cambodia in the aftermath of Pol Pot’s reign. The combined impact of his Mirror reports and his subsequent documentary, ‘Cambodia Year Zero’, was more than $40 million raised for the people of that stricken country. Similarly, his report from East Timor, where he travelled under cover in 1993, helped galvanise support for the East Timorese, then brutally occupied by Indonesia. His reputation as a ‘campaigning’ journalist grew; his four-year campaign for a group of children damaged at birth by the drug Thalidomide and left out of the settlement with the drugs company, resulted in a special settlement.
In 1970, he began a parallel career in British television, starting with the ITV current affairs series, ‘World in Action’. His first film, ‘The Quiet Mutiny’, is credited with disclosing to a worldwide audience the internal disintegration of the US army in Vietnam. Thirty-six years and some 60 documentaries later, he is still making challenging films for ITV. His films have won Academy Awards in Britain and the United States.
He has been a freelance writer since he and the Mirror parted company in 1986. His articles have appeared worldwide in newspapers such as the Guardian, the Independent, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The South China Morning Post, the Mail & Guardian (South Africa), the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age (Australia), Aftonbladet (Sweden), Morgenbladet (Norway) and Il Manifesto (Italy). He returned to write for the Mirror for eighteen months during the build-up to the invasion of Iraq. Since 1991, he has written a fortnightly column for the New Statesman. In 2003, he was awarded the prestigous Sophie Prize for ’30 years of exposing injustice and promoting human rights.’