Rebel remains a mystery


In 1982, the year before he died, the autobiography of the Australian journalist and exile Wilfred Burchett was published. Trenchantly titled At the Barricades, it placed him as a journalist engagé, in the frontline, partisan. More than two decades later, a typescript more than twice that length was brought back from Bulgaria, birthplace of Burchett’s second wife, Vessa, by their son George. Edited by the latter and by Nick Shimmin, it has now been published in handsome and massive form by the University of New South Wales Press. Yet the title and subtitle seem more equivocal than the shorter first version, and indeed prove to be so. Now we have Memoirs of a Rebel Journalist: The Autobiography of Wilfred Burchett, which intends to give Australians with any knowledge of his remarkable career a fresh means for judgment.

The book’s intriguing and provoking cover photograph is simply captioned ‘Wilfred Burchett in Korea, 1951’. Crouching, notes in hand, he is speaking to a man who is almost out of the picture. Was this one of the American POWs whom, notoriously, he was alleged to have brainwashed, and whose torture he may have condoned? The image yields only ambiguity. As for the title: was Burchett a rebel in the sense of not conforming to the wishes of press barons and governments? Or was he a political rebel in Western terms, a communist or agent of the KGB, whose real professional mission was masked by his reporting from so many of the world’s hot spots for four decades? Moreover, to have done so at a time when their crises were most acute? Finally, what kind of ‘autobiography’ is this? There can be a preliminary answer: one of the most protean ever written in Australia.

These memoirs begin in the most calculatedly disarming manner. The author poses this question: ‘Is heresy an inherited or an acquired characteristic?’ The answer comes in deterministic terms. Burchett’s first couple of decades shaped the heretic, the enemy of Empire, the friend of collective workers’ action. He has written, in the book’s first hundred pages, an autobiography in classical Australian mode. After a parody of genealogical inquiry, which leads him briefly back to England, Burchett tells of the honest travails of his parents and extended family—as Melbourne builders, and on a selection at Poowong in Gippsland. Young Wilfred learned the discipline of rural work; was encouraged in his education; was romantically nurtured by the Australian bush with ‘the clean pungent smell of gum leaves’.

He was radicalised by the selling up of his parents’ property, by work—for instance, cane-cutting—that persuaded him of the perfidies of most employers, and by seeing, at the Sydney Domain in November 1938, Egon Kisch denounce fascism and the Australian government that had tried to deny him free speech.

Gradually Burchett imbibed ‘the spirit of internationalism’. Aptly, and in the next stage of what reads like an eloquent parable, Wilfred and his brother Clive went abroad, first to beguiling islands of the Pacific: Noumea and Tahiti. Then Wilfred was summoned by conscience at worsening news of the Spanish Civil War. By 1936 he was in London, working as a tourist clerk for Thomas Cook. Soon, and mysteriously, that job expanded and he secured visas that enabled some European Jews to escape the Nazis.

By a stroke of good fortune that seemed often to attend him, Burchett—who in 40 years ‘never worked inside a newspaper office’, did, ‘to my astonishment and quite unintentionally … [become] a journalist.’ Travelling first to Singapore, he then followed the Burma Road, witnessed the ruin of the Chinese city of Chungking after the Japanese onslaught, and found himself hired by the conservative Daily Express in London. This was notwithstanding his contempt for the British in India where ‘the Colonel Blimps and their men were in beetroot-faced retreat’. Burchett despised ‘the grotesque inefficiency and rabid racism of the guardians of the Empire’. Yet he also understood that, from now onwards, his destiny was to seek places where war was being fought, or where halting efforts to make peace were being made.

His greatest scoop was to reach Hiroshima before a tame contingent of journalists and identify ‘the atomic plague’, the radiation sickness that continued to kill. His despatch was published in the Daily Express on 6 September 1945: ‘I Write This as a Warning to the World’. Then it was back to Europe, ‘because I felt that it was there that the shape of the post-war world would be decided.’ Although he established ‘a base in the European socialist world’, Asia soon lured him again, in particular China and Vietnam. Burchett’s capacity to sense, or to take advice to be, in the right place continued to serve him. He forged links with Chou en Lai, Ho Chi Minh, Prince Sihanouk, Castro. There is not a critical word about any of them. Such contacts meant that in 1971 the US State Department waived an order restricting Burchett to a 25-mile radius of the United Nations in New York so that he could meet Henry Kissinger in Washington to deliver his insider’s judgments.

Sometime earlier my doubts about the book began to surface. Memoirs of a Rebel Journalist is written in such an accomplished, plain style, drawing attention only to its author’s professional assiduity, that questions about Burchett’s ‘whole truth’ are deferred. But the lacunae are notable. His first marriage is almost ignored. On that personal level there is no address to charges of philandering. In professional terms, Burchett’s relations with his Soviet publisher are occluded. Of many controversial accusations about him, some are refuted by impugning the witness, while others—especially regarding Korea—are given only glancing attention. Then there are moments when great historical events are treated with an ideologically programmed indifference. What of the Hungarian uprising of 1956? Burchett blames Radio Free Europe and the ‘adventurism’ of ‘drawing-room revolutionaries’. And what of Mao’s Cultural Revolution? Burchettt evidently regarded it as a praiseworthy enterprise. By contrast, he is unreservedly hostile to those who made and implemented American foreign policy during the Cold War.

Some journalists are excepted, but not the Australian correspondent Denis Warner, whom Burchett accuses of working for ASIO and briefing witnesses in the ill-judged defamation action that Burchett launched in 1974 against the ex-DLP Senator John Kane. The editors, Burchett junior and Shimmin, quote Warner in a couple of pages that include encomia from Bertrand Russell and Harrison Salisbury. For Warner he was ‘an extremely able man and a first-class newshawk’. He praises Burchett’s ‘great personal courage’, ‘great gift for languages’, and a success with women whose reason is not apparent to Warner. The source is a 1953 ASIO report. Presumably it came from one of those boxes that Burchett and Shimmin scorn, where ‘resides Burchett the communist, the KGB agent, the alcoholic, the womaniser, the brainwasher, torturer, agent of influence’.

Yet how many of these descriptions fit a man of whose redoubtable survival strategies so little is disclosed? Where did his money come from? Surely not only from book royalties and a dwindling freelance income. How did he cope with loneliness, suspicion, physical hardship (including strafing and scorpion bites)? That there is a heroic story to be inferred from these memoirs is never suggested by Burchett. Indeed, this very long book is such a masterly attempt to control inference that it risks defeating its own dark purposes. The demonising of Burchett is well attested here, and—with such honourable exceptions as Tom Heenan—it has been posthumous as well. Shimmin calls Burchett ‘the greatest journalist Australia ever produced’. He is certainly the most controversially and best connected, for all that he had to make his way in foreign lands, was censured in Australia and long deprived of a passport. This is an expatriate tale of a most uncommon kind, as well as a political story that will forever be a puzzle, never fully to be unlocked. 

Memoirs of a Rebel Journalist: The Autobiography of Wilfred Burchett
Wilfred Burchett. University of New South Wales Press, 2005. ISBN 0 868 40842 5, RRP$59.95

Peter Pierce is Professor of Australian Literature at James Cook University, Cairns.



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