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Problematising ‘Truth’ in journalistic discourse in John Pilger 'sThe War You Don’t See


The full title of this article submitted by a LALIT branch member is: Problematising ‘Truth’ in the journalistic discourse of The War You Don’t See by John Pilger; a brief discussion.

Does John Pilger’s (2010) The War You Don’t See form part of the propaganda machine it is criticising? Or better, is the documentary, the genre itself, an apologia for the ideological apparatus that is the media? At the debate after the viewing of the hour-and-a-half long film, organized jointly by LALIT and the l’Union Syndicale des Employees de la Presse and the Centre Idriss Goomany, someone present raised this question, and it was discussed briefly. This brief discussion is a continuation of the debate.

Surely Pilger equally makes use of the genre and technology of the media, but is the documentary a vehicle of the power discourse of the whole media? This position suggests that there is no possible space to counter the media discourse from within. Is that so? It is like saying knowledge may not be transcended using knowledge itself. Or that we cannot possibly reason out of the trap of reason. The problem arising here is that we usually think that solutions need to be outside problems and cannot form part of them. This is likely to be an assumption that needs to be examined.

The other problem concerns the possibility of a journalist talking the truth within the media discourse. We need to ask if the truth is a mere product of the media’s power discourse or is there a possibility of resistance to this power? And that relates to the questions above, whether a kind of resistance is possible within the structure of power itself?

To tackle this we can look at Foucault’s postulation that truth is a production of power (1980). Power is a system that constructs the truth in relation to the false. In this way, information carrying the tag of ‘truth’ becomes dominantly circulated while the ‘false’ is being suppressed and erased. Hence a dominant perception is maintained at the expense of what is rendered undesirable as the false. This is to what we are usually exposed to in the news and we come to develop a Euro-American way of seeing the rest of the world and ourselves. In 2001, Carol Morello, a Washington Post correspondent, explains how journalists were prevented from reporting on the war in Afghanistan unless they joined the ‘pool’ system where the army provided them with information and they had restricted access to certain locations (Sara Mills 2003). When casualties arrive she asks if a photographer can take photos of the wounded, or a reporter stand on the side and observe or  talk to the marine rescue pilot, doctors, injured Afghan fighters. To all of these questions she is given a negative reply. She notes that the US troops’ reporters operate under more restrictive limitations than during the Persion Gulf War in 1991.

Now how can we reprocess information that has been distorted at the very source? To move closer to this issue Foucault (1980) examines the opposition made between truth and ideology. He notes that people using the concept of ideology long for some transparent form of knowledge free from all distortion, namely the truth. It is the same thing with the notion of repression where the aspiration is for non-repressive power, hence using more coercion and normalisation. The implication here is that there is actually no real opposition. Truth needs ideology to survive, like power needs processes of normalisation to sustain itself. Truth is the effects of various discourses that are neither true nor false. Repression works through institutions of normalisation like the school, penal and psychiatric institutions. The other essential feature of ideology to Foucault is that it is centred round fabricated subjects about which history is developed. What he proposes is a genealogical approach to history which can ‘account for the constitution of knowledges, discourses, domains of objects etc without having to make reference to the subject.’ (ibid: 117)

The genealogical approach is how we may characterise Pilger’s documentary. When he distinguishes between the two kinds of journalists namely embedded instead of free, he makes visible the so-called non-repressive aspect of the army forces that elaborately organise the journalists’ work with the deployment of such logistics that the perception and reporting on battle grounds become normalised. Embedded journalism which controls what journalists see guarantees that there can be no disruption in the normalised discourse of war reporting. The other thing John Pilger does is to destabilise the central subjects involved in war reporting. He interviews many journalists who admit to have divulged distorted information because of being embedded. He also interviews soldiers professing a different version from the official one with regards to the wanton killing of civilians. Pilger is thus working out a history freed from the fabricated subjects of dominant Western news like the embedded journalist, the soldier-occupier and especially the normalised viewer. He contradictorily brings out the occupied country, the civilians, the grass root journalists and questioning viewers. Like in one of the leaked documents that reveals that ‘the most effective journalists are those who are regarded in places of power not as embedded or clubbable, but as a “threat” ’, Pilger’s documentary attempts to make the public become that threat (Pilger 2010).

Pilger, in Foucault’s terms, is analysing the mechanics of power of daily struggles at grass roots level where the fight is located in the fine meshes of the power web. He does not try to ‘emancipate truth from every system of [media] power but [.. ] of detaching the power of truth from the forms of hegemony, social, economic and cultural, within which it operates at present time.’ (Foucault 1980: 133)     

by TR of the Port Louis LALIT branch.
- Foucault. Michel. ‘Truth and Power’. in C. Gordon (ed) Power/Knowledge .Harvester Press Ltd. UK. 1980.
-Mills. Sara.  Routledge Critical Thinkers, Michel Foucault. Routledge publishers. USA and Canada. 2003.
-Pilger. John. The War You Don’t see.2010.