Pilger’s influence has long since shaped the way broadcasters like Al Jazeera English cover the Arab-Israeli conflict and offer a needed corrective to CNN and Sky.
Blame it on 2002’s Palestine Is Still the Issue, one of the single most influential documentaries about the Arab-Israeli conflict produced for UK television.
Released during the Al-Aksa Intifada, its mix of personal stories, political history, and interviews with Palestinians and Israelis remains influential today.
From activists to officials, Pilger’s camera covered all the possible bases. Though his partisanship is blatant, it’s impossible to dismiss the documentary.
In one scene, John Pilger interviews right-wing Israeli journalist Moshe Dann, driving him along a segregated road to an affluent settlement in the Gaza Strip.
A separation wall is being built nearby, and in their dialogue, you can already hear the apartheid vocabulary that has become normalised today.
Yet, one can also hear Dann’s ambivalence. Its inclusion in the clip underlines the craftsmanship of John Pilger’s journalism.
Dann may be on the wrong side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But Pilger captures him sounding more complex than convinced.
A walk alongside the barrier with settler David Reisch indulges a similar insecurity.
Jews and Arabs didn’t have to live with such boundaries before, he tells Pilger, as though things might have been otherwise. Still, he defaults to separation.
“We will fight,” says Reich. “It’s us or them.”
Occupied Life and Death
John Pilger walks the viewer through pre-Disengagement Gaza in the 2002 film.
The population was already trapped in poverty by security barriers and IDF checkpoints.
In 2005, Israel undertook the dismantling of 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and ended direct military rule in the territory.
Branded the ‘Disengagement’ by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, which included evacuating four settlements in the West Bank, the withdrawal was a deceptive manoeuvre.
On the one hand, Gaza came under Palestinian administration, first by Fatah and then by Hamas. On the other, it still had no sovereignty and was blockaded on all sides.
The Oslo Accords had been in place for nearly a decade. Pilger called the agreement a “classic colonial fix” that put the Palestinian Authority in charge of a POW camp.
Palestine Is Still The Issue shows how Palestinians live under constant fear and humiliation by the Israeli army.
The documentary stressed the culpability of Western powers in the crisis, especially the United States and the United Kingdom, Israel’s two closest allies.
John Pilger’s target audience was the British public.
The documentary was a Carlton Television production and was broadcast on ITV1 in September 2002.
It’s impossible to imagine such a film being broadcast on ITV today, or at least not without severe right-wing condemnation.
It was just a year after the 9/11 terror attacks brought down the World Trade Centre, killing and maiming thousands.
For UK news media at the time, it became difficult to distinguish between what had just happened in New York and the suicide bombings of the Al-Aksa Intifada.
Part of this reflected their inability to cover Middle Eastern politics and religion properly, and part of it reflected political bias.
Whatever the reason, these were wars being waged by Islamists, and Israel was part of the West they were fighting.
Against this backdrop, John Pilger pivots to the West Bank.
Rather than dodge the issue of suicide bombing, he grapples with it head-on.
Pilger interviews the brother of Wafa Idris, a volunteer medic who became a suicide bomber and Rami Elhanan, who lost his four-year-old daughter in a bombing.
“You have to understand where these suicide bombers come from,” Elhanan says. “Understanding is part of the way to solving the problem.”
That’s a far cry from the testimonies British news media offer when they run interviews with Israeli survivors of Hamas’ 7 October attacks.
The only thing they ever seem to do is express their support for the IDF campaign in Gaza.
Most of John Pilger’s films end with an eloquent monologue. This documentary is no different.
“It is not surprising that the Jewish people of Israel should feel insecure,” he says. “No one should ever forget that the most devastating genocide in human history happened only two generations ago.”
It gets even better:
“But a true sensitivity to that awful memory comes from the same basic humanity that recognises the suffering of the Palestinian people and the courage of their endurance,” he adds.
Pilger ends the film calling for an independent Palestinian state. In time-honoured fashion, he argues Israel will never have peace without such an outcome.
Two decades later, this looks like a fanciful prospect in the fog of war.
After Palestine Is The Issue aired, Carlton Television faced an email campaign of complaints against the film. Pilger himself received death threats.
UK media regulators opened an investigation into the documentary.
The Independent Television Commission set out to determine whether the Carlton production had breached the due impartiality clause of the Broadcasting Act.
A three-month inquiry concluded that the documentary was “fair and balanced”.
In his later years, John Pilger became a marginal figure in the British media. He didn’t so much fall out with mainstream journalism as the media establishment fell out with him.
It’s hard to believe that Pilger started his career on Reuters’ Middle East desk before joining The Daily Mirror.
He worked at the Mirror for 23 years and helped launch the failed left-wing tabloid News on Sunday.
John Pilger’s films were always too radical for the BBC. Still, Pilger’s high journalistic standards meant he always found a mainstream broadcaster willing to take his work.
When Radio 4 gave Pilger a one-off slot of 7 minutes in 2014, the right-wing press went into hysterics about the far-left bias of the BBC.
Of course, BBC Question Time regularly gave Nigel Farage an hour of airtime every other week in those days.
In the last decade, John Pilger continued writing and making films. His last documentary was on the stealth privatisation of the NHS.
But Pilger’s legacy will be his work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Though other British journalists sought to put their stamp on it, no one had quite the same impact on national discourse that John Pilger did.
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine the intensity that swept the UK since 7 October without documentaries like Palestine Is Still the Issue.
From the film’s politics to its nuanced portraits of Israelis and Palestinians, it reflects a moral investment in the crisis unique to Britain.
Screenshot courtesy of Carlton Television. All rights reserved.