TV UK, 26 September

John Pilger got up the pro-war lobby's nose, but failed to get under its skin.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

Breaking the Silence: Truth and Lies in the War on Terror (ITV1, on Monday) was a weird programme, which, while totally at odds with mainstream coverage, was also totally predictable and added very little to the debate.

The programme was broadcast on ITV, normally the most unchallenging of British networks, albeit rather late on a Monday night, because of the formidable reputation of John Pilger. The longhaired Australian reporter is a veteran campaigner, with solid, if idiosyncratic, anti-imperialist credentials. As an old Daily Mirror man, he also has that common touch that is irresistible to TV people.

Much of the programme consisted of grisly footage of the victims of war in Afghanistan and Iraq set to gushing speeches by Bush and Blair about the virtue of their campaigns. This is a cheap trick. Images of Western-inflicted suffering might help deflate the moralistic pomposity of some of the pro-war camp, but only at the expense of inflating that of the antis. War is horrible, but we knew that. What we need from a programme like this is an idea of why it’s happening and what can be done about it.

Pilger’s account of life in post-war Afghanistan was more convincing. We’ve been waiting for some time for a triumphalist documentary about liberated Afghanistan, but the removal of the Taliban has not turned the country into the promised land, and in many ways it is debatable if things are better at all. Pilger spoke to a Western human rights campaigner and an Afghan women’s education activist (still undercover), neither of whom was greatly impressed with the results of intervention.

Pilger had access to some important people, and his opponents came off badly. One US government undersecretary was rescued by his army minder when Pilger’s questions got too hostile – nothing could have served Pilger’s purposes better than this burly-sounding off-screen voice insisting that he stop filming.

Another undersecretary asked Pilger after his interview if he were a Labour Party member, apparently believing that this would account for his radicalism. When Pilger put him right about the Labour Party, he asked if Pilger were a Communist Party member. Jeez, welcome to the twenty-first century, Uncle Sam.

Even the normally articulate neocon William Kristol was reduced to breathless counter-questioning, like an overexcited student debater. Whatever Pilger’s faults, which are legion, he at least showed that the supposedly all-conquering hawks don’t like it up ‘em.

It is all the more disappointing, then, that the programme’s politics were so weak. That rusty old oil pipeline was wheeled out again to explain Western interest in Afghanistan, but apart from anything else, that story just doesn’t fit with the anarchic picture of the country we were shown.

Pilger scored a few points against dumb Americans, and ITV earned itself a bit of radical glamour, but the debate has not moved on at all. The perfunctory and intellectually vapid nature of the programme was summed up when a typo appeared in a list of countries the US has intervened in since World War Two (Lybia). Try harder next time.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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