John Pilger and taking quotes out of context

Owen Jones
Jul 28, 2016 · 4 min read

As a young person with almost a desperate thirst for an alternative to the status quo, John Pilger was an inspiration. I had many of his books; I read his articles and watched his documentaries almost religiously. Here was an example of a journalist who stood up to injustice and the powerful, and courageously so.

These days, it’s fair to say that I’m more of a fan of the earlier John Pilger than his current incarnation. But Pilger has quoted me in an article in such a fundamentally dishonest way — and people reading his article keep bringing it up with me — that it deserves a response.

In an article headed ‘A World War has Begun: Break the Silence’, Pilger quotes me as follows:

Described by the Guardian columnist Owen Jones as “funny, charming, with a coolness that eludes practically every other politician”, Obama the other day sent drones to slaughter 150 people in Somalia. He kills people usually on Tuesdays, according to the New York Times, when he is handed a list of candidates for death by drone. So cool.

What embarrassing sycophancy is this, I hear you cry. Except he was quoting from an article in which I was critiquing the Obama administration. He was quoting me summarising how arch-Obama fans shut down criticism of his administration. It’s not my position I was summing up — it was theirs.

Here’s the beginning in context:

To critique Barack Obama’s presidency is to be guilty of these cardinal sins: blasphemy, ingratitude and a lack of realism. What was once the nation of Jim Crow produced the first African-American president, the most liberal commander-in-chief since Richard Nixon (as Obama himself once put it). Funny, charming, with a coolness that eludes practically every other politician, he is the ultimate ambassador for US power. Could the United States possibly elect someone more progressive?

And yet it is difficult not to conclude that, as Obama delivers his final State of the Union address, the US remains a chronically unjust and devastatingly unequal society, its proud democracy beholden to powerful and wealthy interests. It is this potential tinderbox that makes the implausibly clown-like, quasi-fascist Donald Trump the Republican frontrunner; and, more hopefully, a 74-year-old self-described socialist from Vermont — Bernie Sanders –a serious challenger to the Clinton machine.

The article goes on:

But consider the plight of the majority of Americans. We know that, six years into his presidency, poverty was still higher than before the financial system near-imploded. While child poverty has been alleviated for many Americans in the past five years, for African-Americans it has remained stubbornly constant.

The gains of economic recovery have certainly been beneficial to those of great wealth — including the culprits behind the crash — but have meant little to the average American. Of course, that has everything to do with the structure of the US economy since Ronald Reagan swept to power. Consider this: according to the Economic Policy Institute — a thinktank close to the embattled US labour movement — between 1979 and 2007, the top 1% seized 53.9% of the entire increase in US income. It is often suggested that male median income has beenstagnant in the US since the 1970s, hidden only by a flood of women into the workforce: how that’s worked out depends on all sorts of qualifications, such as which price index you choose. Yet even by the most optimistic calculations, if university-educated American men have enjoyed a boost in salaries, those with only high school qualifications endured sliding incomes between 1979 and 2013.

But if Reaganism engineered this model, Obamaism failed to replace it. According to Emmanuel Saez, a US economics professor, between Obama’s inauguration in 2009 and 2013, pre-tax income among the top 1% has jumped from $871,100 to $968,000; for everybody else, it practically stood still.

And — critically given he was talking about drones — here’s what my article said:

That’s before we even deal with foreign policy. We all know of Bush’s Iraq folly, opposed by Obama himself; but, as Isis marches across the coast of chaos-ravaged Libya, we spend too little time addressing the president’s own foreign calamity. Drones that former US service personnel have described as recruiting sergeants for Isis; the failure to redeem his promise to shut Guantánamo; the failure to secure a just peace in Palestine.

The article concluded:

Obama’s presidency has failed to build the just America its citizens deserve. But the US has a proud history of bottom-up movements that have overcome injustice. Their time may have come again.

Indeed, I have repeatedly attacked Obama’s drone programme. After I wrote one article doing so back in 2012, Fox News launched an (admittedly deeply amusing) attack on me, which you can see here:

One of the things John Pilger has done very effectively in the past is challenge the dishonesty of the mainstream media. Critics of the status quo are relentlessly smeared and demonised — and one of the oldest tricks in doing so is to deliberately misrepresent. And that’s exactly what John Pilger has done here. He is guilty of the same thing he has railed against so passionately. And, given the number of people who have contacted me about it, I hope I’ve set the record straight.

    Owen Jones

    Written by

    Author of 'The Establishment' and 'Chavs', Socialist, Guardian columnist. Losing my Northern accent. My views etc...

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