Remembering Burchett


Nick Shimmin explains in the preface to Memoirs of a Rebel Journalist how Wilfred Burchett’s son, George, obtained the typescript of Wilfred’s autobiography: it was kept, along with other papers, by his widow Vessa who lived in Bulgaria and brought back to Australia two years ago by George’s wife Ilza.

Despite its length, George read the entire book in one weekend and so did I, last weekend.

Burchett with Ho Chi Minh

It’s difficult to put down because it is written with the freshness and immediacy of an outstanding reporter who was there when history was made: assisting Jewish refugees in Germany on the eve of World War II, with Wingate on the Burma Road, in China as the Red Army struggled against the Japanese and Kuomintang forces, in Hiroshima after the Atomic Bomb was dropped (despite attempts to prevent his access), and then in Germany after the war, in Eastern and south-eastern Europe, China, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, and many other arenas of contestation and conflict.

He was not only there, he had first-hand knowledge and personal dealings with the decision-makers: MacArthur, Harriman and Kissinger, Zhou Enlai, Ho Chi Minh and Sihanouk.

But this book is something more than an eyewitness record of contemporary history. It’s also the story of a remarkable man. Wilfred Burchett reported events for a large number of news outlets, and he also wrote some 35 books, which were translated into as many languages.  

The story he tells of himself is of a largely self-educated man (he taught himself a number of languages simultaneously and by rote while labouring on the land) who came from a strong, close family background of nonconformity, perseverance and industry. He practised all the family characteristics.

The Burchetts came to Australia from south-east England in the 1850s and were pioneers in southern Gippsland in the 1870s, enterprising builders in Melbourne during the 1880s, then forced back onto the land by the depression of the 1890s. Wilfred’s father similarly went into the building industry but was ruined by the Great Depression of the 1930s. Wilfred (the younger son) hit the road, experiencing the hardship and exploitation and mateship of life as an itinerant adventurer.

He was in Sydney in 1934 when a Methodist minister and family friend died at the Domain when speaking out against the refusal to permit Egon Kisch to enter Australia. Kisch, a flamboyant roving reporter and publicist for Left causes, clearly inspired Wilfred’s career. Burchett remembers him here as a champion of noble causes, ‘the world was his beat.’ Kisch was also the victim of official surveillance and vilification.

Wilfred Burchett made the world his beat, championed noble causes and also incurred victimisation. He became a marked man in Japan after World War II, when he defied the American control of information to publicise the effects of atomic radiation.

He lost the support of his Fleet Street editors as the Cold War gripped Europe. He was accused of aiding the enemy in Korea, and of interrogating or even brainwashing American and Australian prisoners of war. He was subsequently accused of working for the KGB, and living in luxury while he plied his trade, always at the front line, surviving danger and sickness, hammering out stories on his typewriter.

He was persecuted by another Australian journalist, Denis Warner, who himself had close links with ASIO. When I googled Wilfred Burchett, the entry for Denis Warner’s papers in the National Library was close to the top because they contain an extensive Burchett file.

Wilfred’s passport was stolen in the mid-1950s and he was refused entry back into Australia, and threatened with violence when he eventually did return by light plane from Noumea.

The autobiography concludes with his subsequent and unsuccessful suit against the Democratic Labor Party’s former Senator Jack Kane, his failure to gain justice and the ruinous award of costs that effectively kept him out of his homeland for the rest of his life.

As early as 1953, Wilfred Burchett was the subject of a book published by the Australasian Book Society, He Chose Truth. In 1986 Ben Kiernan edited a collection of essays that appraised his work. His own memoirs appeared in two previous versions, Passport in 1969, and then At the Barricades, in 1981, which is the bowdlerised and heavily reduced version of Memoirs of a Rebel Journalist.

There has been a hostile life of Wilfred written by the ineffable Roland Perry a far less distinguished journalist, who then turned his attention to John Monash and Don Bradman there are security files in Canberra and other places, and there have been countless spiteful and derogatory articles.

Burchett’s journalistic career was always something more than reportage; it was a commitment to a cause. That cause for Burchett was the liberation of humanity from oppression, the defeat of fascism, the success of national liberation movements and the building up of an alternative political, economic and social order.

He insisted that he was not a member of the Communist Party, and none of his critics have ever shown that he was. But he was a supporter of the communist movement in a period when the bipolar logic of the Cold War interpreted that support as treachery. His very ability to work on the other side (despite Western attempts to prevent his doing so) allowed him to report world events with knowledge and insights denied to others.

Burchett repeatedly broke stories. He was the man on the spot who did not rely on official briefing and handouts he went and saw for himself. He drew not just on his interviews with leading figures in China, Korea, Vietnam and elsewhere but intimate contact with other participants.

Burchett was at his best when a story was breaking and he could take the reader behind the scenes, or in challenging and rebutting the spurious allegations that were part of the Cold War propaganda battle.

He was less successful in his judgement of communist regimes. He was no analyst and he could not assess the direction of slow historical changes. He praised the achievements of Stalinism and downplayed its repression.

He was a crusading journalist who almost instinctively took a contrary line to Western news and news commentary. Hence he was gullible at best in his reports on the show trials in Eastern Europe after World War II; and he was slow to see the murderous character of the Khmer Rouge regime, or recognise the plight of boatpeople who fled Indochina.

But to suggest he simply toed the party line is to ignore the fact that he had to, and did, take sides in the conflict within the communist bloc. He supported the Soviet Union against Tito, China against the Soviet Union, Vietnam against China.

Moreover, his informed knowledge was respected by conservative diplomats such as Frederic Eggleston and Keith Waller.

We are indebted to George Burchett and Nick Shimmin for preparing these memoirs for publication. They tell the remarkable life story of a remarkable Australian.

This is an edited version of Stuart McIntyre’s launch speech for Memoirs of a Rebel Journalist. Another version of this speech appeared on Japan Focus.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.