Why we need partisan political documentary

John Pilger

Propaganda is to a democracy what violence is to a dictatorship

In 2011 as part of a PG Dip in Communications I researched elite propaganda and self censorship in the mainstream United States media during wartime. It was at times a profoundly depressing  task, so pervasive, so blatant are the lies and half truths told by political and military elites and reported stenographically by the media, that it makes a mockery of any liberal notion of democracy and a Fourth Estate. Partisan political documentaries by the likes of Pilger, Greenwald, Ferguson, Moore, Morris, Gibney et al are an essential way of balancing the information ledger when the everyday media has been such complete and utter failure at holding authorities to account.

Thomas Benson and Brian Snee in The Rhetoric of the New Political Documentary put it best I think when musing on the views of critics of the liberal notion of objective and reasonable debate in society at large and documentary in particular.

“…new political documentaries are and ought to be partisan, provocative, even a little paranoid, because that is what the circumstances demand and what they can do best. If this causes civic pessimism, perhaps that is preferable, such a position would argue, to a loyal enthusiasm for the misguided status quo. If this prompts partisan action, so much the better. If it does only part of the job of political persuasion, others are welcome to take the debate the rest of the way by whatever democratic means are at hand.”(p18)

The battle for the minds of the public is continuous and is never more important than when a country’s elite decides to wage war. When a nation’s media is so acquiescent that it slavishly reports the propaganda (Public Relations) of its authorities without question, when that country’s government is spending billions on PR and has tens of thousands of people engaged in its packaging and dissemination, the citizens of a democracy desperately need these documentary makers to stand up, to confront and expose the deceptions. There is no need for the niceties of “objectivity” or “fairness”, for so disproportionate are the resources weighed against them, the “other side” is already well established and needs no assistance. At pivotal times, when a superpower is about to commence another slaughter of tens, hundreds of thousands, even millions of people, if political documentaries can give people pause to think, to question, then the faux criticism of lack of objectivity is irrelevant. As long as the documentary maker is not lying or making things up, they should feel free to be as partisan as they like.

Benson and Snee again,

“In raising issues otherwise not discussed, in offering skeptical reassessment of settled politics, in sustaining collective memory that reaches beyond the hourly news cycles, and in bringing otherwise silenced voices to the public sphere, the new political documentary, for all its faults, has an important role to play in the larger array of political discourse.”(p20)

Interesting interview with Robert Greenwald about how he got into documentaries   – “It takes a village to make social change”

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