human rights news & views

A Fifth Estate of citizen monitoring

John PilgerExpatriate Australian journalist John Pilger (right), in accepting the Sydney Peace Prize last week, was very critical of silence and lies in Australian polity and complicit bystanders among the Australian press and public.  He calls us from slumber to form a 'Fifth Estate' of citizen monitoring — that eternal vigilance that is the price of freedom.

Here's an extract from his speech:

In an essay for The Monthly entitled 'Faith in Politics,' Kevin Rudd wrote this about refugees:

“The biblical injunction to care for the stranger in our midst is clear.  The parable of the Good Samaritan is but one of many which deal with the matter of how we should respond to a vulnerable stranger in our midst . . . We should never forget that the reason we have a UN convention on the protection of refugees is in large part because of the horror of the Holocaust when the West (including Australia) turned its back on the Jewish people of occupied Europe who sought asylum.”

Compare that with Rudd’s words the other day.  “I make absolutely no apology whatsoever,” he said, “for taking a hard line on illegal immigration to Australia . . . a tough line on asylum seekers.”

Are we not fed up with this kind of hypocrisy?  The use of the term 'illegal immigrants' is both false and cowardly.  The few people struggling to reach our shores are not illegal.  International law is clear – they are legal.  And yet Rudd, like Howard, sends the navy against them and runs what is effectively a concentration camp on Christmas Island.  How shaming.  Imagine a shipload of white people fleeing a catastrophe being treated like this.

The people in those leaking boats demonstrate the kind of guts Australians are said to admire.  But that’s not enough for the Good Samaritan in Canberra, as he plays to the same bigotry which, as he wrote in his essay, “turned its back on the Jewish people of occupied Europe.”

Why isn’t this spelt out?   Why have weasel words like 'border protection' become the currency of a media crusade against fellow human beings we are told to fear, mostly Muslim people?  Why have journalists, whose job is to keep the record straight, become complicit in this campaign?

OVO's 2003 production of Party Time. . . One of my favourite Harold Pinter plays is Party Time.  It’s set in an apartment in a city like Sydney. A party is in progress. People are drinking good wine and eating canapés.  They seem happy.  They are chatting and affirming and smiling.  They are stylish and very self aware.

But something is happening outside in the street, something terrible and oppressive and unjust, for which the people at the party share responsibility.  There’s a fleeting sense of discomfort, a silence, before the chatting and laughing resumes.

How many of us live in that apartment?

Amira HassLet me put it another way.  I know a very fine Israeli journalist called Amira Hass (right).  She went to live in and report from Gaza.  I asked her why she did that.  She explained how her mother, Hannah, was being marched from a cattle train to the Nazi concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen when she saw a group of German women looking at the prisoners, just looking, saying nothing, silent.  Her mother never forgot what she called this despicable “looking from the side”.

I believe that if we apply justice and courage to human affairs, we begin to make sense of our world. Then, and only then, can we make progress.

. . . Silences can be broken, if we will it.  In one of the greatest poems of the English language, Percy Shelley wrote this:

Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number.
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep has fallen on you.
Ye are many – they are few.

. . . We need an Australian glasnost, the Russian word from the Gorbachev era, which broadly means awakening, transparency, diversity, justice, disobedience.

It was Edmund Burke who spoke of the press as a Fourth Estate.  I propose a people’s Fifth Estate that monitors, deconstructs and counters the official news.  In every news room, in every media college, teachers of journalism and journalists themselves need to be challenged about the part they play in the bloodshed, inequity and silence that is so often presented as normal.

The public are not the problem.  It’s true some people don’t give a damn – but millions do, as I know from the responses to my own films.  What people want is to be engaged – a sense that things matter, that nothing is immutable, that unemployment among the young and poverty among the old are both uncivilised and wrong.  What terrifies the agents of power is the awakening of people: of public consciousness . . .

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