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The Autobiography of Wilfred Burchett

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The Rebel Journalist

The Memoirs of Wilfred Burchett



May 13/14, 2006

I had to wait for my review copy of this book for a few weeks. The publisher in Sydney explained that the copy scheduled for me had been diverted to an interloper who had urgently demanded a copy. The interloper turned out to be none other than General Giap, the military genius of the 20th century, vanquisher of the French at Dien Bien Phu, mangler of the world's mightiest battle machine.

That Vietnam's supreme hero was eager to have his copy of Memoirs of a Rebel Journalist: The Autobiography of Wilfred Burchett (University of New South Wales Press, distributed in the US by the University of Washington Press) is not surprising. Burchett knew Giap personally, and mentions him numerous times in the volume's 756 pages. He also knew and was a valued friend of Chou En-lai, Ho Chi Minh, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, Fidel Castro, Major Charles Orde Wingate, and a host of senior ministers, diplomats and politicians, mainly from China and Vietnam.

This does not mean Burchett (1911- 1983) was one of those journalists who love power and hang around with its purveyors and practitioners in the belief they, and only they, will provide the important news. On the contrary, Burchett came from the opposite school - and was the better reporter for it. He believed in being on the spot, but also in talking to ordinary people and above all in observing and probing events.

The book is co-edited by artist George Burchett, Wilfred's younger son, and Dr Nick Shimmin, an Anglo-Australian author and editor, who describes Wilfred as "the greatest journalist Australia has ever produced, and one of the best foreign correspondents the world has ever seen". I worked with Burchett, liked him a lot, agree with Shimmin's definition, and sadly his second point, that people exist "who have sustained decades-long, vitriolic attacks on him and his legacy." The reason: Burchett reported from "the other side" and made no secret of his Communist sympathies.

To a post-Cold War generation the intensity of this hatred may seem odd. Even to those of us who remember those days, the nastiness of the period's ideological divisions and the extremes to which the right would go in its hysteria and paranoia, stays as the sourest of memories . Among those in power that Burchett met, brash American bravado and ignorance remain unmatched in his account of four decades of making war and seeking peace, but for sheer oafishness his own hick Australians go unequalled. The British excel in racist snobbery and incompetence, backed by ghastly "old boy" camaraderie piled on uninvited, and which Burchett masterfully captures and pins. The wise Chinese, valiant Vietnamese and forbearing Russians mostly maintain a gallant composure, but as noted, the author is pro-Communist.

Yet was he a capital-c Communist, or a "Red" to use the old color scheme? This has been a recurring theme in evaluations of Burchett's work, and it returns with this book. As he made his beat unique, reporting the Vietnamese war literally from Vietcong underground tunnels, and from it scooped his journalist colleagues regularly, Burchett often featured in the news himself. On such occasions, the word "Communist" was simply an adjective placed in front of his name. Did it invalidate his findings? He always denied being a Communist and does so several times in the book. Nobody has ever produced a piece of paper belonging to a Communist party with Burchett's name and signature upon it. Does it matter if Wilfred Burchett joined the Communist Party of Australia in the Depression as a young man seeking work as a construction carpenter amid mass unemployment, and supporting the downtrodden against big bosses and rapacious landlords? Or did he join later somewhere else, or never?

My plea is to give the Burchett/CP membership charge an overdue and much deserved rest. It remains after all these years only a Cold War cudgel to beat one of the greatest providers of news from the left that journalism has produced, and who therefore mightily pissed off the authoritarian right because his scoops were so telling.

This is the man who in 1967 when preparing one of his 31 books, called it upon publication in 1968, Vietnam Will Win. The US was then claiming imminent victory, but was defeated eight years later. Burchett saw the issues he discusses up close. Employed in penury in his native Gippsland, Victoria, he discovers the power of workers who organize when they help him combat a ruthless boss. Later in 1938 as a travel courier in Germany - he was a self-taught multi-linguist - he helps many of his agency's Jewish customers to escape Nazi persecution. One he visits in Berlin is too distraught to speak. He later tells Burchett that literally two minutes before he rang the door bell, his brother had shot himself dead rather than face a concentration camp.

Burchettt did not become a reporter until almost 30. It was in Australia, where the war now raging that nobody thought would happen reminded editors of one reader's letters they consistently declined to publish. They came from a young man who seemed to know a lot about Germany and he was invited to write articles. This experience formed Burchett's opinion of the woeful laziness and lack of guts in the mainstream press that guided the rest of his life's journalism. He worked mainly for small left publications, after some glorious war reporting in Burma, India, and China - and scooping the world on Hiroshima - with the Daily Express of London, then one of the world's best papers for foreign coverage despite its eccentric Toryism. He lived in Indo-China, Moscow, East Europe and Peking, but was always away on stories. His weary months with cease- fire talks at Panmunjom during the Korean war demonstrate in detail the duplicity of American negotiators, who wanted the war to continue, and expose a dreadful truth: that military men and diplomats care more about scoring points off each other than the fact that their delays cause mass deaths each day they prevaricate.

He makes a strong circumstantial case that Americans did use germ warfare in Korea - another subject that dogged his career and inflamed opponents. His repeated spells of months living with National Liberation Front guerrillas, dressed in a black pajama-style outfit with a conical straw hat, riding a bicycle, crouching in tunnels, sleeping in hammocks, and moving mostly at night in areas "controlled" by American forces and their South Vietnam allies, often inside Saigon, showed him that no matter what military monster roared forth, the country was already lost to the foreign invaders and their puppets. He knew

then he would publish these truths. No wonder he was hated. In Greece in 1946 when his dispatches exposed the fake election and forecast civil war, the British consul-general who earlier called him "old boy," now told him he was expelled. An American journalist  George Polk -- was murdered. The civil war lasted more than three years. "I had merely reported what I observed", he writes, "drawing upon the natural and logical deductions from these observations. But the period in which what becomes obvious truth catches up with that perceived and published by a diligent journalist, can be very uncomfortable, as I have discovered many times in my career. And the process keeps repeating, with no credit from the critics of past bull's eyes when they are disputing the accuracy of the latest shot."

He makes it sound simple, and in fact it is not that complicated. Mainstream media are festooned with lies every day, especially in the US, where a major reason is American insistence on "objective" quotations. This means you print the lies officials tell you. These "officials" are selected with blatant bias. Months pass without hearing from one trade union leader. Left-of-liberal opinions are never sought. Known mountebanks mouth on unchallenged. And in wars, as we know, truth is the first casualty. Yet here is another important question raised by Burchett's book, which is an enlargement of his 1981 recollections, At the Barricades. Why is it considered wrong, even treacherous, for someone to report a war on the side fighting the nation in which he or she is a citizen? There is no law against it - although in Burchett's case his government wanted to pass one, while refusing for 17 years to replace his stolen passport.

As he points out, the New York Times reporter Harrison Salisbury (quoted in the front as a Burchett admirer), and the leftish British journalist James Cameron, both visited north Vietnam during the war. They were not labelled "Communist agent" as Burchett was by Tom Lambert in the Los Angeles Times. Lambert's shoddy lies offer direct evidence that these are his customary currency. "With the inception of Communism, and its deliberate subjection of journalism to ideology, a new type of reporter came into being...the journalist political agent," Lambert fibs. Never, of course, has capitalism required ideological fealty from the journalists it employs... In another respect, Burchett readily admits to acting as an agent in the sense of participating in the historical events he finds himself reporting, to try to bring about something useful. It is the simple duty of a member of society, he argues. He became a key source for fellow journalists at the Paris peace talks on Vietnam and at Panmunjom; he conveyed constructive messages between warring sides; and he intervened to help an Australian prisoner of war in Korea (and was castigated by other ex-prisoners as a KGB agent for his trouble).

If there is criticism of this large work it is the final chapter and its ending. Burchett, as edited, concludes with an outraged account of the biased conduct of a court case for defamation he brought in Sydney in 1974. A miserable right-wing ex-senator, John Kane, wrote an article accusing Burchett of taking money from the KGB to act on its behalf while his own nation was at war with enemies the KGB supported. In other words he was a traitor. The main witness against him was a Soviet defector of notorious dishonesty, who claimed to have recruited him in Moscow where Burchett lived in luxury.

By bringing the $1m action, Burchett gave the Australian conservative dingbats who had always hated him a superb opportunity to air every foul slander and slur they could imagine. They exploited this fully. Adultery and blackmail were dragged in. He was said to bring down governments just by visiting their countries, as he had in Greece and Portugal. None of it was true but little real evidence for him was permitted, except an old Moscow acquaintance who recalled his apartment as modest. His case was unnecessary as Labor had won the recent election, in which Kane was ousted. It immediately restored Burchett's passport, whereupon the newspapers headlined him "Citizen Burchett". Months later, headlines screamed about wild courtroom allegations. He should have dropped the case and let Kane wallow in his inadequacies.

Instead, Burchett won a pyrrhic victory. The jury found he had been defamed, but that Kane had parliamentary privilege for his previously-spoken allegations - something a cub reporter could have spotted. Burchett was stuck with six-figure costs he could not pay, restoring the exile caused by his formerly missing passport. Never having learned libel as a trainee reporter, Burchett may not have known enough about parliamentary privilege; his lawyer should have warned him.

The book ends there, on a sad note not fully explained. Missing too for space reasons are his mid-1970s exploits in Portugal and its former African colonies, and elsewhere. The solution would be Volume 2 of Burchett's memoirs: his last travels and thoughts, the final fitting climax to a life magnificently lived by a good man doing a good job the best way he could.

Christopher Reed is a British freelance journalist in Japan. His email is christopherreed@earthlink.net.

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