Wilfred Burchett: The Rebel Journalist

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Wilfred Burchett, an influential agent of the 20th Century.

Ricketson, Matthew. 2005. “Memoirs of a Rebel Journalist: The Autobiography of Wilfred Burchett.” Image. Accessed April 4, 2012.http://www.theage.com.au/news/book-reviews/memoirs-of-a-rebel-journalist-the-autobiography-of-wilfredburchett/2005/12/30/1135732730565.html

Early life

Wilfred Burchett (16 September 1911- 27 September 1983), informally donned the ‘rebel journalist,’ was one of Australia’s most prominent journalists of the twentieth century for reporting on war conflicts in Europe, Japan, Korea and Vietnam.  Burchett was born in Clifton Hill in Melbourne to a poor farming family and spent most of his early life working on farms around the area of Poowong  (Burchett 2005, 12).  He attended school for a short period of time, however dropped out due to financial difficulties.  With no formal education or training, Burchett continued farming and spent his free time studying philosophy, history, politics, science, foreign languages and journalism, as well as grammar and syntax (Burchett 2005, 27).  He became particularly interested by the role of the foreign correspondent ‘with the world as his beat,’ and learnt about ‘the great stress on the responsibilities which foreign correspondents shouldered in informing the public accurately on the burning issues of the day, the courage and integrity involved…” (Burchett 2005, 27) Burchett worked various laboring jobs before relocating to Sydney in 1934 to take on a salesman job selling vacuum cleaners (Burchett 2005, 72).  At the end of 1936, at the age of 25, he headed overseas with his brother Winston to New Caledonia in search of a travelling lifestyle (Burchett 2005, 98).

Starting Out

In 1937 Burchett left New Caledonia for London where he began work for a travel agency that specialized in handling emigrant traffic out of Germany.   It was here that he met and fell in love with Erna Hammer, a Jewish refugee from Germany who he married in 1938 (Burchett 2005, 119).  Less than two months after their wedding, upon hearing about the arrest of 35 000 Jews in Germany, Burchett left for Berlin in the hope of devising a plan to free people from arrest (Burchett 2005, 120).  Whilst in Germany he read British and Australian newspaper reports of Hitler as a ‘man of peace.’  Appalled by this complete misrepresentation, Burchett wrote to the Melbourne newspapers about how Hitler was preparing to unleash war at any moment.  (Burchett 2005, 133) His letters were not published by the newspapers, however a few weeks later when Hitler attacked Poland, the features editor of the Melbourne Argus asked Burchett to write an article on one of Hitler’s accomplices, Goering, describing him as a peaceful family man.  Burchett refused, as these claims did not align with his moral standings of consistently revealing the truth to the public (Burchett 2005, 133).  Burchett’s moral obligations bring forth the concept of the fourth estate, which Sternberg describes as “the belief that the central role of journalism is to act a watchdog on behalf of society and monitor the activities of powerful institutions and individuals” and that “it is the job of journalism to report abuses of this power, defend the rights of citizens and give citizens the information necessary to hold those responsible to account” (2012, 21).  Burchett was confronted with the choice of reporting on false claims, and decided against it as he felt morally obligated to give correct information to the public.  This was a defining moment in his career from where forth he would always endeavour to tell the truth.

 

Second World War

Burchett was the first journalist to report from the site of the atomic devastation at Hiroshima in 1945 (Burchett 2005, 229).  He saw first hand the effects of the nuclear explosion, which he relayed in a story that appeared in the 6th September 1945 edition of the Daily Express (Burchett 2005, 241).   In his article, entitled, The Atomic Plague, subtitled, “I Write This As A Warning to the World,” Burchett brings forth the concept of the fourth estate by revealing to the public the true extent of the destruction at Hiroshima.  As it was broadcast across the globe and read by audiences from many different cultures, Burchett became known as a man of incredible authority.  Such influence is expressed in Thomas Carlyle’s description of the fourth estate,  

Whoever can speak, speaking now to the whole nation, becomes a power, a branch of government, with inalienable weight in law-making, in all acts of authority. It matters not what ra he has, what revenues or garnitures: the requisite thing is that he have a tongue which others will listen to; this and nothing more is.  (Carlyle quoted in Sternberg 2012, 21)      

By reporting on the ground breaking global issues of his time, Burchett became a man of power in the political world.

 

Korean War

In February of 1951, Burchett spent a short time in China, before crossing the border into Korea with British journalist Alan Winnington.  The pair covered the Panmunjom peace talks from the Chinese and North Korean side (Burchett 2005, 366), Winnington reporting for the Daily Worker(published by the Communist Party of USA) and Burchett for left-wing Paris newspaper Ce Soir (Burchett 2005, 366). Burchett and Winnington also drew attention to the unacceptable treatment of North Korean POWs in UN camps in South Korea.  Their respective governments did not believe their reports and they were branded traitors (Australian War Memorial, 2012).  In spite of this perception, it was common knowledge in the journalistic sphere that “Burchett and Winnington were a better source of news than the UN information officers, and if the allied reporters did not see them they risked being beaten on stories.” (Knightley 2000, 388).  This was accredited to the fact that Burchett and Winnington placed utmost importance in the truthful relaying of events.  A particularly iconic report that Burchett wrote whilst in Korea was an article on General Dean.  His report, accompanied by photographs taken by a Chinese photographer, detailed the fact that the Dean was alive, contrary to widespread belief that he was dead.  From a global perspective, the nature of the report was ground breaking, as it was carried by nearly every newspaper in America and relayed across the world (Burchett 2005, 385-386).  The global resonance of this report exemplifies Held and McGrew’s description of globalization.

Globalization… denotes the expanding scale, growing magnitude, speeding up and deepening impact of transcontinental flows and patterns of social interaction.  It refers to a shift or transformation in the scale of human organization that links distant communities and expands the reach of power relations across the world’s regions and continents.  (Held and McGrew quoted in Flew 2007, 67) 

By reporting on such a profound event, Burchett created what Held and McGrew describe as a common ‘link’ between world communities as they became united in knowledge of the Korean War.

 

Vietnam

Burchett went to Vietnam in 1962, travelling solo through the South and then with the Viet Cong for most of 1963 and 1964 (Burchett 2005, 511, 523).  During this time, Burchett wrote books on the conflicts, including, My Visit to the Liberated Zones of South Vietnam (1964) and articles that revealed the true details about the American use of chemical warfare (Miller 2008).  He even contributed to the making of multiple films in North Vietnam for French TV, called Hanoi Under The Bombs, as well as a series of interviews (Burchett 2005, 563-564).  By writing articles, books and being involved in films and interviews, Burchett’s work brings forth the concept of convergence, defined by Sternberg as, “blurring boundaries between different elements of the media system and the interaction between different elements of media systems” (2012, 7).  By expanding across different media platforms, Burchett demonstrates the qualities of an influential media practitioner.

Not withstanding the qualities he possessed as an influential media practitioner, Burchett still attracted negative media attention due to his connections with the Viet Cong, which resulted in him being labeled as a Communist enthusiast  (Heenan 2006, 132).  Burchett was not concerned by titles, but instead wanted to unearth the truth, stating in an interview,

I’ve come to believe over the years that my duties as a journalist go beyond my responsibilities to an editor or a publisher and that my duties as a citizen of the world go beyond my responsibilities only to my own country.  In other words, I reject the, my country right or wrong. (Burchett 1981)   

Burchett reported the truth from wherever it needed to be uncovered, despite the backlash he would inevitably receive.

Legacy

In his latter years Burchett continued to be a mouthpiece of the truth.  He died on the 27th September 1983, leaving behind a legacy of over 30 books (ADB 2007) and an innumerable amount of articles that were received worldwide, offering an alternate perspective that will always insight free thought.  Furthermore, journalist Denis Warner encapsulates the essence of Burchett’s character through his words: “he will be remembered by many as one of the more remarkable agents of influence of the times” (1997, 198).

 

Reference List 

ADB (Australian Department of Biography).  2007.  “Burchett, Wilfred Graham (1911–1983)” Accessed March 30, 2012. http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/burchett-wilfred-graham-12265.

AWM (Australian War Memorial).  Accessed March 28, 2012.  “Out In The Cold: Australia’s involvement in the Korea War, Wilfred Burchett.” http://www.awm.gov.au/exhibitions/korea/faces/burchett/.

Burchett, Wilfred.  1981.  Public Enemy Number One, interviewed by Richard Oxenburgh (broadcast n.d)

http://aso.gov.au/titles/documentaries/public-enemy-number-one/  

Burchett, Wilfred G.  2005.  Memoir of a Rebel Journalist: The Autobiography of Wilfred Burchett.  Sydney: University of New South Wales Press Ltd.

Denis Warner.  1997.  Not Always on Horseback: An Australian Correspondent at War and Peace in Asia, 1961-1993.  St Leonards: Allen and Unwin.

Flew, Terry.  2007.  Understanding global media.  New York: Palgrave Macmilian. Accessed April 1, 2012.

https://cmd.library.qut.edu.au/KJB102/KJB102_BK_341341.pdf

Heenen, Tom.  2006.  From Traveller to Traitor:  The Life of Wilfred Burchett. Carlton, Victoria:  Melbourne University Press.

http://search.informit.com.au.ezp01.library.qut.edu.au/fullText;dn=204887559168332;res=IELHSS

Knightley, Phillip.  2000. The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker from the Crimea to Kosovo.  Revised ed.  London: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Miller, Jamie.  2008.  “The Forgotten History War.”  Accessed March 30, 2012. http://www.ias.uwa.edu.au/new-critic/eight/Miller.

Sternberg, Jason. 2012. “KJB102 Introduction to journalism, media and communciation: Week 3: Key Concepts in JMC.” Accessed March 30, 2012. http://blackboard.qut.edu.au/webapps/portal/frameset.jsp?tab_tab_group_id=_2_1&url=%2Fwebapps%2Fblackboard%2Fexecute%2Flauncher%3Ftype%3DCourse%26id%3D_86000_1%26url%3D.

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