Boatpeople stories dominate the news and stereotypes abound of villainous people smugglers, undeserving asylum seekers and soft government policies. Promotion of such stereotypes is couched in very unedifying schoolyard cat-calling between political parties.
Stereotypes fuel uncertainty: is it compassion for asylum seekers? Or suspicion that they are attempting to come to the lucky country illegally?
Stereotypes are easily assumed to represent a truth and questions are therefore not asked. Why are Tamils fleeing Sri Lanka if the war is over? If the Sri Lankan government is a friend of Australia, why bother about the 300,000 Tamils held in internment camps? If Australia is a defender of human rights and spends millions of taxpayer’s dollars on Indonesian detention facilities, then conditions for detainees must be of high standard.
Now Australia begins to be embarrassed. Stereotypes are being unmasked because questions are being asked.
This week, another stereotype will re-appear. The renowned journalist and filmmaker John Pilger will receive the 2009 Sydney Peace Prize. For decades he has been challenging stereotypes yet ironically he himself is stereotyped as being one-sided, and almost always unfair to mainstream media’s views. But his courage in making such challenges is one of the reasons why he was chosen as the 2009 Sydney Peace Prize recipient.
Praise for Pilger’s skills in exposing injustices is matched by derision and jibes such as the Gerard Henderson’s “claim” that the other contenders for the Sydney Prize were Castro and Nasrallah. The most vitriolic of criticisms - from individuals involved in Jewish studies - paint Pilger as “unbalanced”, “inaccurate”, a “vicious anti-Semite” and a “career Israel basher”.
Intrigued by such contrasting responses to such a significant filmmaker, journalist and author, I have examined John Pilger’s films and books and asked why a Pilger stereotype persists.
Perhaps the most disturbing criticism is that he is an “anti-Semite”. My evidence confounds this claim. It misrepresents and misleads.
John Pilger is highly critical of Israel’s use of force to control Palestinians but he does not deny Israel’s right to exist and does not demonise Israelis. Pilger’s scholarship includes commentary from many Jewish and Israeli individuals who also struggle to achieve peace with justice. He presents a Palestinian point of view and uses sources that are seldom included in mainstream accounts of this conflict. He unmasks injustices which would otherwise stay hidden. His originality is refreshing.
In his documentary, Palestine is Still the Issue, he shows the plight of innocent Palestinians - children and civilians, yet he also identifies the pain caused to Israelis by the consequences of suicide bombings. Instead of merely describing violence, he continues to ask “why?” His closing statement in that powerful documentary looks for a solution: “two countries, Israel and Palestine, neither dominating nor menacing the other.”
Martha Gellhorn, the famous US war correspondent, wrote the preface for Pilger’s book Heroes, yet her comments have been used by Monash University social work lecturer Philip Mendes, to bolster his labelling of Pilger as having an “anti Zionist fundamentalist perspective”. Although Gellhorn does not always agree with Pilger’s analyses of the Palestinian conflict, she congratulates him on not paying the slightest attention to his critics. Gellhorn writes: “Basically, it seems to me, he has taken on the great theme of justice and injustice. The misuse of power against the powerless. The myopic, stupid cruelty of governments.”
Pilger upsets authority and challenges powerful individuals. The citation for the Sydney Peace Prize includes a reference to “his resistance to censorship in any form”.
Pilger is often stereotyped because he does what others have failed to do. His preoccupation is with voices that usually go unheard. He reports on people and events that have fallen under the media radar: the removal of the whole population of the Chagos Islands to make way for the US military base of Diego Garcia, the genocidal policies of the Indonesian government in East Timor, the severe effect of sanctions on Iraqi children and civilians, and on Australian soil, the ongoing unequal treatment of indigenous people.
Being steeped in stereotypes stifles the ability to analyse and criticise. But John Pilger has not been silenced. In Noam Chomsky’s words, his work “has been a beacon of light in often dark times”. He may offend establishment figures but he is never defensive about his exposure of injustices.
On November 5 in the Sydney Opera House, John Pilger will give the 2009 City of Sydney Peace Prize Lecture. He will ask thousands to discard the stereotypes - about boat people, about the plight of Indigenous peoples, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. By challenging us to “Break the Australian Silence”, he will also forecast what we all have to do to achieve peace with justice.