BOOKS: by Joseph PoprzecznyNews Weekly
ON BURCHETT, by Tibor Méray, Tibor Meray
, September 13, 2008
Epitaph for an Australian traitorON BURCHETT
by Tibor Méray
(Melbourne: Callistemon Publications)
Paperback: 269 pages
Rec. price: AUD$24.95Figuratively speaking, the closest I've come to Wilfred Burchett was during a long conversation about him with Australia's legendary war correspondent, Denis Warner, who told me, amongst other things, that Burchett attended his engagement party in either 1944 or 1945 on a Pacific island recently liberated by the Americans.
I seem to recall our conversation was in 1975, so it was either during, or just after, the defamation trial in which Burchett defended himself against former Democratic Labor Party (DLP) Senator Jack Kane's accusation that he (Burchett) was a serial pro-communist propagandist.
That Sydney trial, in which Burchett was described as "a petty, conniving communist propaganda hack", prompted me to telephone Warner, who invited me to his home in Mount Eliza, Victoria, for a chat. After this, I had no need to inquire any further into this propagandist's career.Heroic figure?
I most certainly never bothered reading Gavan McCormack's 1986 apologia, Burchett: Reporting the Other Side of the World, 1939-1983
, which, amongst other things, ridiculously claimed he was " an heroic Australian figure".
Nor have I bothered with Burchett's autobiography, Memoirs of a Rebel Journalist,
edited by his son George and Nick Shimmin, who lionised Burchett as "the greatest journalist Australia has ever produced".
Without any doubt, Gippsland-raised Burchett dedicated himself during his journalistic career to promoting communist canards and causes under the guise of fair and objective reporting.
Thirty-three years on, Tibor Méray's recently published study On Burchett
fully confirms conclusions I arrived at in the mid-1970s.
Australia has had many traitors and dedicated pro-communist proselytisers, but most of them are all too quickly forgotten.
Who, for instance, recognises names such as union leader Ernie Thornton; Walter Clayton (Soviet codename Klod/Claude), who headed an important Soviet spy ring in Canberra; and high-ranking officers in Australia's Department of External Affairs, Jim Hill (codename Khill/Tourist) and Ian Milner (codename, Bur/Dvorak), the so-called Rhodes Scholar spy?
The only communist operative whom some may recall- and probably only because she, like Burchett, was a writer - is Katharine Susannah Prichard (codenamed Academician), who was a founder-member of the Australian Communist Party and a red propagandist, not to mention talent-spotter and courier for Soviet intelligence.
Burchett stands out because he worked for the Soviet Union and its various satellite states as a Western-based roving reporter assessing, informing and propagandising, from various Cold War flashpoints - Berlin, Korea, Vietnam. He also covered the various post-war Stalinist rigged "show trials" and faithfully parroted the official party line that those on trial, such as Hungary's Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty and Laszlo Rajk, were genuinely guilty of treason.
Tibor Méray's book is important for many reasons, not least because he spent a year with Burchett in Korea reporting, during the 1953 armistice negotiations, for Hungary's communist daily Szabad Nép
They became friends. Méray, a communist, was genuinely fond of Burchett. However, unlike Burchett, Méray eventually rejected that particular cause. After the 1956 Hungarian Uprising, which was brutally crushed by the Soviets, he fled to Paris and devoted himself to denouncing, through his writings, Soviet repression.
Méray's book is not a vindictive indictment of a person who sided with those who crushed Méray's homeland and so many other people's homelands.
On the contrary, he says of Burchett in his foreword: "After all, we were friends and what is more, good friends.
"One cannot simply erase from the memory so many pleasant shared moments, the conversations, glass in hand, lasting into the early hours of the morning, the dangers and the joys experienced together. These things are simply unforgettable....
"We both helped the [communist] movement which rewarded us with decorations. Politically we were in complete accord. When our ways did part, some of your fellow Australians urged me to write about you - to write against you - more than once."
In fact, because of his regard for his old friend, Méray held off writing On Burchett
for many decades, until well after the end of the Cold War.Historical record
However, its eventual appearance has ensured that the historical record is forever set right.
So, what do we learn? Many things.
Méray observed that Burchett, although a long-time hard-core communist, constantly showed signs of shame or guilt about his incriminating communist associations. But this incorrigible scoop-hunter - to use Méray's term - nevertheless pressed on as a kept man accepting communist assistance.
At a famous 1973 Sydney press conference, a reporter asked Burchett, "You say you're not a communist. Where exactly do you stand politically?"
"Where do I stand politically?" replied Burchett. "As a journalist, first of all I'm completely independent. I'm sure it's true to say I'm more independent than anybody in this room."
Thus he dodged declaring his true political allegiance and deceitfully claimed to be independent.
He was quite capable of performing cynical political about-turns. For instance, in 1976, a year after the murderous communist Khmer Rouge had come to power in Cambodia, Burchett declared that, under its ruler Pol Pot, the country "had become a worker-peasant-soldier state" with a constitution guaranteeing that "everyone has the right to work and a fair standard of living" and which was "one of the most democratic and revolutionary constitutions in existence anywhere".
Burchett waited until 1979, when communist Vietnam attacked Cambodia and overthrew Pol Pot, before he finally reversed his 1976 assessment, despite the fact that, by then, Pol Pot's genocide of nearly two million people was a well-attested fact.
Méray highlights other earlier examples of hypocrisy and sheer dishonesty. At the 1953 Korean armistice negotiations, Burchett was assigned a Chinese briefing officer.Followed directives
Writes Méray: "It was Shen Chen-tu, the Chinese government official, who told Burchett what to write, and he supervised it every day. Burchett followed his directives without fail. Shen was Burchett's boss and he was Shen's subordinate." (p.27)
Yet, as Méray points out, Burchett, in a letter to Melbourne's The Age
on March 16, 1970, boasted, as if it was his professional journalistic credo: "There is no one in the wide world that can tell me where to go and what to write; no editor or publisher, no political organisation, no government." (p.27)
Burchett's reticence about his clandestine life was evident in two of his books, Passport
(1969) and At the Barricades
(1981), in neither of which was Shen named. Méray writes: "Wilfred had the opportunity to write Shen's name, to honour his close friend's memory, [but] Shen remained nameless....
"Wilfred was a very conscientious journalist - conscientious in what he wrote, and also in what he left out of his stories. There must have been a reason for this omission." (p.23).
Minor details, perhaps, but surely significant ones.
There are many similar easy-to-overlook but telling insights which make Méray's account of Burchett's communist fellow-travelling and his modus operandi
helpful to our better understanding of other such chameleon agents of influence.
Burchett was certainly a jovial and gregarious comrade, one who even enjoyed singing Waltzing Matilda
at parties. Writes Méray: "His repertoire included another song too, 'Les Cuatros Generales',
which he said was one of the favourites with the International Brigade.... Wilfred wanted to demonstrate that we were not simply the sons of different nations but also members of a super-national world movement."
However, underlying all his foibles, reporting and joviality was an ingrained conniving dedication to the 20th century's biggest murderous machine, communism.
This dated back to at least 1937 when, according to Denis Warner, Burchett was helped by Stalin's ambassador to Britain, Ivan Maisky, to set-up a London-based travel agency for the Soviets.
In 1953, at the Korean armistice talks, Méray saw Burchett cultivate, assess, brief and report on Western reporters. Manipulating the news was part of a familiar strategy employed by communists in the course of negotiations. By influencing the perceptions of - in fact, deceiving - their avowed enemies in the West, they thereby hoped to influence their behaviour at the negotiation table.
Burchett was thus a far more crucial cog in the Korean War than even his many other nefarious deeds might suggest - such deeds as reporting on prisoners-of-war and fabricating accusations that the US was engaging in germ warfare, both of which Méray treats incisively in separate chapters.
On the germ warfare canard, Méray disagrees with many critics of Burchett who have credited him with having "concocted" the germ warfare canard.Hate campaign
Says Méray: "The [germ warfare lie] was 'concocted' at a much higher level than ours - Burchett's or mine. It fulfilled the task, as it had provoked an anti-American hate campaign of an unprecedented intensity.
"During the 1970s and 1980s there was no reason left to continue with the old story. Realising this, Wilfred, having no desire to be the 'last of the Mohicans', dropped the subject.
"So it is poor [Gavan] McCormack who remained to be the last, or one of the last, of the Mohicans of the germ warfare issue. For him the germ warfare problem is still 'contentious', and he defends Burchett's actions and pronouncements by all available means, including his role in the POW project." (p.86)
Méray's book On Burchett
has rightly been acclaimed by Australian Korean War POW, Brigadier P.J. Grenville, CBE, as a study that "destroys many of the myths developed over 40 years by Burchett and his friends".