20 June 2009

Book review – Tell me no lies.

Tell Me No Lies: Investigative Journalism and Its Triumphs edited by John Pilger

John Pilger presents a collection of almost 30 articles from journalists and writers who have either witnessed first-hand or carried out investigations into the most fascinating, shocking, horrible and, at times, simply unbelievable events of the past few decades. Himself a seasoned and fearless journalist, he pays tribute to those he calls ‘the greatest practitioners of the craft’ of journalism. As a student of journalism, and an eager incumbent, it will be difficult to view the role of journalists through traditional lenses again. This book remembers the heroes who made personal sacrifices, went beyond what was expected and took risky steps to “not only keep the record straight, but to hold those in power to account”.

Every single article in this book is gripping and, being historically recent, those events that I have a vague memory or recollection of are simply fascinating –Max du Preez on Apartheid’s Death Squads, Robert Fisk on Israeli sponsored atrocities in Lebanon, Anna Politkovskaya on the war in Chechnya, Linda Melvern’s investigation into the Rwanda genocide, the never-ending deaths of children in Iraq and Gaza – these are all events that I have lived through and now struggle to understand how they happened in this modern era, while I was growing up, schooling and getting on with life.

Not all are gruesome war stories – Jessica Mitford exposes the multi-million dollar funeral parlour scam, Edward Murrow challenges the propaganda of Senator McCarthy, Seumas Milne covers the smear campaign against British labour union leaders. These are just some of the examples of why good investigative journalism is ever more vital today.

This book is important for all. For those that are journalists or serve some role in the media, reading this will be a clear reminder of the role that needs to be filled. For those that are consumers of media (which is most of us that can read), this is an example of what we should be demanding from our journalists. For those that can’t access the media, who can’t read or can’t speak out – either because they are being prevented from doing so actively or passively – this book is an example of what is needed for liberation.

Appendix – snippets of my favourite chapters:

Martha Gellhorn, Dachau, 1945 – Gellhorn is an American war reporter who writes about a Nazi death camp that she reported from at the end of World War 2. She gives a gripping account of the spine-chilling horrors that occurred in the camp. Lest we forget.

Wilfred Burchett, The Atomic Plague, 1945 – “I write this as a warning to the world…’ started Burchett’s story on the Hiroshima. Being the first news correspondent to enter Hiroshima after the atomic bombing, this story came to be described as the “scoop of the century”. He detailed the horrible after effects of the H-bomb that he witnessed firsthand, but the Americans authorities denied this and sealed the area, preventing any other journalists to get in. History eventually told the truth about the events in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Lest we forget.

Edward R. Murrow, The Menace of McCarthyism, 1947-54 – Pioneered a form of broadcast journalism that he called ‘being there’. The transcripts of some of his broadcasts, from a programme called See It Now are published. He exposed the anti-communist witch hunt of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Reading the transcripts after a glance at the picture of Murrow in the book, one can actually hear the bellowing force of his voice.

Jessica Mitford, The American Way of Death, 1963 – In this well researched and meticulously recorded investigation into the ‘death industry’ in North America, Mitford exposes what has become a multi-million dollar industry. The family or friends of a deceased, at a most emotional time, are lied to and deceived into spending obscene amounts of money for what is dishonestly called ‘law of the funeral.’

James Cameron, Through the Looking-Glass, 1966 – Cameron was the first Western journalist to report from the North Vietnam during the American attacks there in 1965. He was accused of being a ‘conduit for the North Vietnam Communists’ but claimed that he recorded and reported on the diverse people in North Vietnam. His account told a very different story from that being reported by other journalists who were in the south, concentrating on the battlefield being won or lost. Cameron instead, looked at the people of Vietnam who faced the most sustained aerial bombardment in the history of warfare.

Seymour M. Hersh, The Massacre at My Lai, 1970 – Hersh uncovered the story of a massacre in a Vietnamese village, My Lai, that the US Army was trying to keep out of the newspaper. Up to 500 women, children and old men were systematically murdered on 16 March 1968 by American soldiers in a few hours. Hersh interviewed those involved and repaints a graphic picture of what happened on that horrid day.

Max du Preez and Jacques Pauw, Exposing Apartheid’s Death Squads, 1988-94 – Max du Preez founded the Vrye Weekblad, the only Afrikaans newspaper to oppose Apartheid. For this, he was subjected to abuse, persecuted, threatened and eventually sued until the paper was forced to close down. He and Pauw reflect on their experiences of investigating and exposing Apartheid’s death squads. They uncovered the stories and risked their lives trying to protect their sources and spread the truth of the atrocities of the Apartheid government.

Paul Foot, The Great Lockerbie Whitewash, 1989-2001 – Foot died as the book was getting published and Pilger dedicates the book to his memory. He covered the saga of the Lockerbie bombings in 1989 that carried on, down a windy track until 2001. He reveals what appears to be a massive cover-up by American and British authorities, finally ending in a theatrical court case that pegged a Libyan national as the scapegoat of an obviously much wider conspiracy.

Robert Fisk, Terrorists, 1990/2001 – Fisk is a journalistic legend and is hailed as one of the greatest modern war correspondents. He gives a firsthand account of being one of the first journalists (as well as human beings) to stumble upon the massive Israeli sponsored killing fields of Sabra and Chatila in Lebanon. He describes the bodies of children, women and the elderly that were still warm when he and other journalists found them. He then describes how the Israeli propaganda ensured that those ultimately guilty have still not been brought to justice for these atrocities.

Seumas Milne, The Secret War against the Miners, 1994 – Dubbed by Pilger as “one of the finest political exposes in our time”, Milne’s essay provides a thorough and in-depth look into an astonishing smear campaign against the leader of the Britain’s National Union of Mineworkers, Arthur Scargill. The mainstream media, British intelligence, politicians and even Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher are implicated in this sinister plot to discredit a man who came to wield significant popular support in the fight for workers rights.

Amira Hass, Under Siege, 1996 – An Israeli correspondent for the Ha’aretz newspaper, Hass did in 1993 what no Israeli journalist had ever done – she went to live and report from the ‘open air prison’ of the Gaza Strip. Living in such close proximity to each other, Palestinians and Israelis live such different lives that they could be living on two different planets. She, an Israeli whose parents moved to Israel after surviving the Nazi persecution, describes the Israeli’s “extremely sophisticated method of restraint, reminiscent of Apartheid” under which millions of Palestinians are forced to live.

Philip Knightley, The Thalidomide Scandal: Where We Went Wrong, 1997 – By the time it was discovered in 1961 that thalidomide was responsible for abnormalities in foetuses, over 8000 deformed children had been born throughout the world. Knightley reminisces on his experiences as a journalist trying to expose the cover up by the corporations, health officials and so many within the legal profession.


Tazeen said...

interesting read

Bilal said...

very. especially for those in media...