I’m not really sure to be honest! When I was at university the only job I wanted was working for the Natural History Unit at the BBC, so I just pestered them for about a year and a half. Finally they said, and I quote: “you’re so fucking persistent that we’ll give you the job.” I started out as a radio producer. It wasn’t so much the idea of journalism, but it was doing something relevant to the environment, because what I always wanted to do was make investigative environmental programmes.
I was very lucky in the timing, because it was just before Thatcher launched her coup against the BBC. I had a window of a couple of years when I could look at pretty well anything I wanted and it was a wonderful time. We made some powerful investigative programmes which actually changed things. Some of them made very big news stories, embarrassed governments and changed policy and I thought “wow, this is fantastic, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.” Then things went really badly for the BBC – Thatcher sacked the Director-General Alasdair Milne, replaced him with an accountant and made it clear that the age of rocking the boat was over. Everyone lost their nerve and the message was passed down from on high that you weren’t to do difficult and challenging stuff anymore. My boss called me up one morning and just said “end of show, it’s over”, which was hard to take, but it showed me that I didn’t want to work for the BBC unless I could do what I wanted.
Is that why you decided to go freelance?
Yes, exactly. At the time I had a story I was working on about West Papua and the transmigration programme. The Indonesian government under Jakarta, this terrible dictatorship, was moving millions of people from the inner islands of Indonesia to the outer islands. Ostensibly, this was to relieve population pressure, but in reality it was to colonise and conquer the outlying lands, which were independent indigenous territories. The human rights abuses associated with it were truly awful as well as the devastating environmental destruction, and it seemed to me to be the biggest untold story in the world at that time.
So when I couldn’t investigate this for the BBC, I decided to do it anyway. I convinced some publishers to let me write an investigative travel book with a political purpose to bring it to public attention. To everyone’s surprise, including my own, that went very well and became my first book, Poisoned Arrows. After that I made a resolution from then on that I would never have a boss again. I have an editor of course, but I’m a freelancer and hopefully I’ll never have to take another ‘proper job’ again. The world of formal employment just does not suit me. I think it doesn’t suit a lot of people and I am very lucky to have had the choice.
Speaking of your travels – you’ve experienced some very extreme situations around the globe. Can you give us one example that has particularly shaped your current viewpoint?
I suppose my real adult education experience was in Brazil. There were very strong citizens movements’ trying to fight back against what was happening, which was very different to some of the other countries I worked in, and there were some outrageous examples of injustice against them. I accidentally got caught up in a land dispute. I was beaten up by hired gunmen, and then the military police tried to finish me off. That was the point at which I realised this was a political struggle which I could never abandon and I brought home the perspective of the rural workers I’d been working with, who had been trying to resist the seizure of their lands. I realised that so much of what we’re looking at is disputes over basic resources, as there are governments, corporations and powerful owners trying to gain complete control over those resources. That perspective can explain a lot of what goes on around the world.
It was a very formative experience for me, becoming so physically involved that I almost became another of the victims of this murderous campaign on the part of the big landowners, backed by the government and military in Brazil. This was under the [José] Sarney government, when Brazil was just emerging from a dictatorship but hadn’t really gone all the way and was still grasping at what a democratic government is about. After becoming so involved, I realised that this was my struggle too, that I was part of the campaign. In fact, what happened to me significantly changed the outcome, because you could kill peasants in Brazil with impunity at the time, but not British journalists. Some local papers misreported my death at the hands of the police, which caused a scandal large enough to force the government to intervene in that particular land dispute on behalf of the peasants. Of course, that was only one dispute, but it was still a lucky break.
Do you feel the independent media and the corporate media are at odds with each other?
I think the corporate media is as much a part of the problem as any other corporate sector, perhaps a bigger part in that it greatly limits the scope of political discussion and gives people a very misleading account of the world. It limits the scope of democracy by deliberately misinforming people, because it wants them to believe that what’s good for billionaires is good for everybody, whereas in fact what’s good for billionaires tends to be the opposite of what’s good for everyone else.
Is the move towards single-source subscription news pioneered by the likes of Rupert Murdoch cause for concern, then?
Yes, I feel that what he’s trying to do is get people behind his ‘pay wall’ and then keep them there. I imagine his thinking is that if people have taken the step of paying for his online services then they’re going to make the fullest possible use of them because they don’t want to waste their money. So he wants to get his claws into them and make sure that those people can’t escape again, or are less likely to do so. It’s just another corporate strategy, which may or may not work, to monopolise people’s sources of information. There are so few outlets now which are truly independent, so I’m really glad to hear about Now Then. The local press isn’t really independent, with very few exceptions; the national press isn’t independent, with even fewer exceptions; so you have to look far and wide to find objective sources of information, let alone an objective ranking of the importance of information. One of the biggest problems we have with the media is the massive over concentration on certain forms of news, which aren’t that important, and a great neglect of much more important stories.
Are Rupert Murdoch’s close ties to politicians and private meetings with world leaders more or less of a concern than his control of so much information?
I don’t think the two can be separated; it’s all part of a system of media lobbying whose purpose is to ensure that governments work for big business and rich people rather than working for everyone. The two-pronged attack, which you correctly identify as Murdoch’s strategy, is a very effective one. They’re terrified of him. I remember when Blair effectively asked his permission to govern. He went off to Australia before the 1997 election and greased up to Murdoch in the most obvious and revolting way. He basically said, “I’m Labour, but I’m not like the others – I’m really a Conservative. Will you allow me to form a government?” Murdoch is the king maker. He seems to count for much more than the electorate does and it’s a very, very frightening situation that no government seems to be prepared to counteract. If he’s the person who decides whether they stand or fall, the last person any government wants to upset is Rupert Murdoch.
Why do you think there has been so little media coverage of the documents released by Gisha pertaining to Israel’s policy of the deliberate reduction of basic goods in Gaza?
A very good question and a shocking story. Putting Gaza on a diet contravenes a whole host of international laws including the Geneva Conventions and it’s the outright denial of the most basic human rights. It’s not being covered because of an extremely powerful Israel lobby which doesn’t want stories like that to be published. I say the Israel lobby specifically as it’s not necessarily the Jewish lobby by any means – a lot of the Israel lobby is comprised of right-wing Christians in the United States. They have a number of motives, partly that Israel is a bulwark in the Middle East – the belief that it acts as an effective means of disciplining the rest of the region, ensuring that there’s no coherent response to Western strategy there. It’s a place in which Western policy is implemented on behalf of those who pay for that policy, and if course (particularly from the US) that’s in its enormous amount of military funding of Israel and other aid programmes. It is no accident – it is because they want Israel to act as their policemen in the Middle East.
It’s also that there are a whole series of completely wacky beliefs held by some of these right-wing Christians in the United States, and these are people with serious political clout, who believe, or claim to, that they need to bring about an Apocalypse on Earth and for that to happen Israel has to engage in war with its neighbours and Armageddon has to be enacted. There are all sorts of weird things going on so that these evangelical right-wing Christians can be lifted up to Heaven and sit at the right hand of God. Now this sounds like a wacky fairytale, and it is, but unfortunately a lot of people in powerful positions appear to believe it. The Republican Party is infested with beliefs like this and the Democrats are terrified of the Israel lobby and its ability to embarrass them into giving Israel what it wants. It seems that the instinct is to flinch in the face of this lobby, not to call its bluff, not to say “why should we be pouring this huge amount of aid into Israel when it is treating people with such a blatant disregard for their human rights?” Why, at the very least, do we not make it conditional on respecting the rights of the people of Gaza and the other Palestinians?
Is this the politics of fear then, as with Rupert Murdoch?
Yes, very much so. It’s all about appeasing those who are more powerful than you and governments are there at the behest of powerful people. Our system works in such a way that if you upset a very small number of people, you are not going to stay in government. It really is as simple as that. Everyone knows who those people are and so they are appeased at every opportunity, which is how New Labour stayed in power – it appeased them ruthlessly and abandoned all the principles that the party was supposed to stand for in order to make itself amenable to Rupert Murdoch and the United States, particularly the Bush administration.
Do you think that Wikileaks is a step in the right direction for public access to information? Has the floodgate now been opened?
It’s definitely a step in the right direction, but I don’t think it’s opened any floodgates other than those within the Wikileaks system. The reaction of politicians has not been to say that releasing all that information has been a good idea, but rather that we’ve got to be much more careful to make sure none of this escapes by such means in the future. It hasn’t changed the politics of secrecy, but we desperately need a change and to see much more open government. After all, these are people who are only supposed to be there because of us and acting on our behalf, so why the heck shouldn’t we know what they’re doing? It’s a very strange situation where these people, for whom we pay entirely, don’t even allow us to see what they’re getting up to. It’s absolutely absurd. Currently, despite the Freedom of Information laws, it seems the default position is secrecy.
Tell us a bit about your tour of debates.
I love public discussion. It’s the thing I enjoy most apart from being outdoors. To me, politics is all about having wide-ranging, free debates. You are not constrained by your own self-interest or political requirements, and you have no commercial or political interests at stake, so you can say exactly what you want to say. That’s the space which we are hoping to create. I’ve done similar things before, where you start with ten minutes of laying out an argument and the invite people to respond to it with their own case or comments and then the rest of the evening is taken up with the public debate of that argument. It’s always worked really well and I’ve found that these events become most interesting when I stop speaking. I just love the process of struggling over ideas – not necessarily against people, but very often with them, trying to develop approaches and solutions and analyses together, and sometimes having a good old ding dong in the process. I can’t think of a better way to spend an evening.
Is it that love of debate that prompted the tour? It’s quite a brave move!
Yes, I’ve been very lucky. The Guardian allows me to do whatever I want. Any subject I’m interested in I can go and research, think over and then write about. It’s enabled me, over many years now, to explore and investigate a huge range of issues and do a lot of my own research, which has given me a certain amount of confidence when making my case. I know that at the very least I can support it with factually based arguments. So, while I might be wrong, at the very least I can be wrong in an interesting way.
Can you tell us what your topic will be for Sheffield?
I haven’t the faintest idea! That’s part of the excitement of these evenings – I wait until a day or two before to see what’s in the news and if there’s an interesting topic for debate that’s already at the forefront of people’s minds before deciding. I want the events to be as spontaneous as possible and part of that is choosing the topic for the first half. The first part is where I choose a topic and kick off with ten minutes explaining my view of that topic, then invite people to knock it down or give their perspective. In the second half, people bring up what they want to talk about and we have an argument about those issues. In the interval, we’ll encourage people to make notes on what they would like to talk about and I’ll choose the half dozen or so most interesting topics and we’ll go from there. I’ve spoken in Sheffield in the past and it’s always been a very interesting place to talk. People there have a lot to say for themselves.
This article continues is Now Then #36.
George Monbiot will appear at the Showroom on March 2nd.
Read his articles at monbiot.com http://www.monbiot.com/
Israel putting Gaza on a Diet http://www.gisha.org/
Sheffield Indy Media http://www.sheffield.indymedia.org.uk/