I’ve always had a very strong sense of justice and injustice,” said television journalist and documentarian John Pilger. “In the Name of Justice: The Television Journalism of John Pilger,” Anthony Hayward’s excellent account of Pilger’s work, shows how that sensibility has driven Pilger to create 50 British television documentaries over the last 30 years, programs that have changed public policy and saved lives. From his 26-year coverage of Cambodia to an investigation of thalidomide babies, Pilger has revealed the impact of government policies on people who many times are just struggling to survive. Former U.S. assistant secretary of state and Clinton spokesman James Rubin once gave Pilger the ultimate compliment by saying, “He was so well-prepared, and he wouldn’t let go, as if he really believed in the issues he was raising.”
Hayward gives an exacting description of Pilger’s involvement in each project — sometimes so exacting that it overwhelms the reader with details. But this method allows Hayward to show that Pilger’s involvement didn’t end when his reports aired. As a result of Pilger’s broadcast and print work, for example, a barbaric hospital was shuttered and $45 million in relief funds was raised for starving children in Cambodia.
Pilger’s professional life has been dedicated to exploring tragic situations, and Hayward stares unblinking into these horrors. It’s a difficult but worthwhile read. Pilger documented everything from a mother considering prostitution as a means to feed her starving children to the bloody remains of torture and murder at Cambodia’s Tuol Sleng extermination camp, where the Khmer Rouge killed 12,000 people from 1975-78.
Pilger also has faced treachery at home, confronting government television regulators and later battling for timeslots.
In the field it sometimes seemed as though Pilger and his crew were playing James Bond to get the story (and get out alive): assuming the identities of tourism directors, filming with hidden cameras, distracting border guards with Playboy magazines, and so forth. But James Bond never encountered the kind of decimation on which Pilger reports: genocide, starvation, child labor and mass graves.
Thankfully, there is some much-needed levity in these pages. In a report about the cola war between Coca-Cola and Pepsi, Pilger says, “Think how popular God would have been if only his image people had thought of a slogan like ‘The Real Thing.’ He might even have been as popular as Coca-Cola.”
Unfortunately, “In the Name of Justice” suffers a few flaws that keep it from being truly great. At the outset, Hayward notes that his book is not a biography but an account of Pilger’s television journalism. (Hayward does sketch a short Pilger bio in the introduction.) By eliminating Pilger’s life and influences outside his work, Hayward denies the reader the opportunity to understand how an Australian surfer became so dedicated to risking his life in politics and warfare.
Curiously, Hayward’s book is not organized in the usual chronological manner but by subject, which makes the storytelling process disjointed. The author packs an incredible amount of information into his book, but his dry style drains emotion from the text.
Still, the subtext of Hayward’s recounting of Pilger’s career asks the reader to determine what is more outrageous: the inhumanity that Pilger documents, or the political policies that allow — and even support — such atrocities. It’s a question not easily answered, but as Pilger once said, “This is a step forward and, until the evidence suggests otherwise, we might even allow ourselves a modicum of hope.”