Recent exchanges about Wilfred Burchett have seen several of his apparent defenders, such as Simon Nasht (yesterday, comments) and Nick Shimmin (10 December, comments & 12 December, comments), erect various straw men and avoid the real issues surrounding his actions, especially during the 1950-53 Korean War.

Chief of these is the claim that Burchett was “only a journalist who reported from the other side”. This attempted defence ignores two key issues: what Burchett did in addition to his reporting and why; and the dubious, at best, motivation, objectivity and quality of most of his post-World War II reporting.

Originally an able journalist in World War II, Burchett became a willing and committed propagandist for Stalinism during the early and middle Cold War. His (never renounced) prolonged regurgitation of bogus Soviet propaganda that the UN forces in Korea conducted germ warfare attacks is merely one of many examples of his subjectivity and unprofessional “journalism” from at least 1950 onwards.

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Burchett’s post-World War II “journalism” was just a cover for his communist party activities and, as various Eastern bloc archives show since the fall of their communist regimes, he was under the direction and protection of the Bulgarian and/or Soviet intelligence services for most of the 1950s and 1960s.

But even if we ignore the controversies over his journalism and his activities as a committed communist, at the very least Burchett was directly involved in causing the severe maltreatment, and in some cases torture, of Australian and allied prisoners-of-war (PW) in the Korean War. He knowingly edited forced (and false) “confessions”, gave propaganda lectures on behalf of his Chinese Army employers and deliberately betrayed the confidences of PWs to their Chinese and North Korean captors. This is recorded in numerous reputable accounts, not least in the highly respected official history series covering Australian participation in the Korean War.

Moreover, even if all that can somehow be ignored too, Burchett refused to take messages from our PWs back to their families — hardly the actions of an objective reporter, or indeed a humanitarian, in circumstances where China and North Korea were flagrantly ignoring their Geneva Convention obligations in this and other regards.

For ever after Burchett always refused to debate former PWs from Korea in public about his behaviour in North Korea — including on his 1972 arrival press conference in Australia, Eric Donnelly of the Brisbane Telegraph, one of the PW Burchett had betrayed. The ABC, to its great discredit, continued to broadcast interviews with him after meekly accepting his blustering refusal to be interviewed if any of his critics among ex-PW were ever included. Similarly, Burchett never pursued his threatened writs for defamation against Denis Warner, the most distinguished Australian war correspondent of the post-World War II era, when Warner exposed Burchett’s actions in North Korea to a new generation of Australians. A good account of all these events, written by one of his PW victims, may be found in the Autumn 2006 issue of Defender.

Nasht also asks why Burchett was never prosecuted. The answer is that his activities fell into a Victorian-era legal loophole between the crimes of high treason and sedition (as did, unfortunately for all concerned, the later activities of David Hicks and possibly others in the Afghanistan War). Burchett’s actions in North Korea also occurred before Australian legislation even began to catch up with modern international law after the signing of the UN Charter in 1945 had invalidated national declarations of war. Indeed this can still cause confusion where the belief incorrectly persists that “undeclared wars” still exist or that “declarations of war”, or their absence, have international or domestic legal ramifications.

Australian governments from Menzies to Howard failed to close the legal loopholes that had allowed Burchett to escape prosecution for knowingly and actively aiding the enemy our troops were fighting in time of war — actions separate to, and far exceeding, mere biased and tendentious reporting. (The same loopholes eventually entrapped David Hicks in a worse legal limbo — where the US were always willing to release him from detention as a captured combatant under the Laws of Armed Conflict if he could be tried for criminal offences in Australia).

Many present and former members of the ADF have never forgotten this second and equally inexcusable betrayal by our government — on top of Burchett’s original actions which they regard as unequivocal treachery. This also answers Niall Clugston’s odd question as to why Burchett’s actions remain such an issue for so many.

Finally, with recent amendments to the Defence, Sedition and Crimes Acts, if any Australian now undertook the actions Wilfred Burchett undoubtedly did in the Korean War, and perhaps the Vietnam War, they would be rightly liable to prosecution. It should be noted that these actions are separate to those claimed to be just “reporting from the other side”. (They also prevent any future equivalent of David Hicks from falling into his particular legal limbo).

This is as it should be in any liberal democracy which goes to war. Our troops are committed to war by our duly elected government. We expect and require them to risk their lives and future well-being on behalf of all their fellow Australians. We also expect — and must have — their constitutional and institutional obedience as a disciplined defence force to lawful orders from our Government. The reciprocal obligation this invokes for the Australian Government and all Australians is to back up our troops by outlawing, prosecuting and punishing any Australian who recklessly or deliberately causes harm to our forces by aiding the enemy in time of war — especially if done directly. We also have reciprocal obligations to our allies when an Australian actively aids a common enemy on the battlefield.

It should also be noted that nothing in these new laws affects the right to peaceful and legitimate dissent from an Australian Government decision to participate in the war concerned.

The issue of Wilfred Burchett is not merely a matter of political differences as Nasht, Shimmin, Clugston and others appear to believe (to give them the benefit of the doubt). Nor is it whether a journalist with pronounced communist sympathies and biases is better or worse, say, than one with nazi or fascist affiliations. It is also not about the moral, legal and professional dilemmas caused when an Australian journalist genuinely tries to “report from the other side” in a war in which Australia is a belligerent party.

The question of Wilfred Burchett instead involves three inter-related issues: defining the boundary between lawful dissent and treachery; institutionalising matters of fairness, democratic responsibilities and reciprocal obligations when we send our defence force off to fight for Australia on our behalf; and how quickly polemics and myth can supplant facts in popular discourse when even relatively recent history is forgotten, or misconstrued, as those involved pass on.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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