This article was written by Tom Heenan, Ben Kiernan, Greg Lockhart, Stuart Macintyre, and Gavan McCormack.
It is a perverse tribute to the journalist Wilfred Burchett that, 25 years after his death, major Australian media continue to devote space to denigrating him. Robert Manne, Australia’s “Number One public intellectual”, took 10 pages of the June issue of his magazine The Monthly to condemn Burchett. In the same month, Mark Aarons wrote in similar vein for The Australian, and Philip Adams hosted both authors on his Radio National program Late Night Live.
For three decades, as a former columnist and then editor of Quadrant magazine, and now as Chairman of the Board of The Monthly, Robert Manne has been the central figure in the assaults on Burchett’s reputation. His recent rearguard action, conceding much ground but firing loud salvos as he retreats, opens an illuminating window on Australian political and intellectual history. It illustrates Manne’s tendency to consider selectively other scholars’ research and his penchant for redefining the terms of an argument to suit his current agenda.
Robert Manne first took up cudgels against Burchett in 1985, in an article published in Quadrant, which awarded him a prize for it. There he accused Burchett of a multitude of sins: working as a KGB agent; a Korean War torturer and brainwasher of POWs; black-marketeer; black-mailer; black-guard; womaniser; alcoholic; Soviet agent of influence; and fabricator of germ warfare propaganda stories, whose treacherous activities, had they been properly investigated, would have got him hanged for treason.
Twenty-three years later, Manne has modified his view. He now concludes that Burchett was a journalist of “very considerable talent” with “a genuine instinct for human equality”, who had ventured to Berlin under Nazi rule in a “noble” effort “to help Jews escape to Australia”. Manne thus omits his earlier grotesque comparison of Burchett to the Nazi propagandist Julius Streicher.
On Hiroshima, 63 years after the dropping of the first atomic bomb, Manne now acknowledges for the first time that Burchett’s exclusive report from the target city weeks after its destruction was a scoop “of world-historical importance”. He also concedes (again for the first time) that Burchett “backed the right horse” on the war in Vietnam, “where opposition to American behaviour turned out to be right”.
In his most astonishing reversal, Manne now concedes that Burchett “probably” never did work for the KGB.
On many matters, therefore, it seems Manne was totally wrong. His retractions have vindicated the views of his long-time targets, including some of us. (See Ben Kiernan’s essay, “The Making of a Myth: Wilfred Burchett and the KGB,” in his 1986 anthology, Burchett: Reporting the Other Side of the World, 1939-1983, and Gavan McCormack, “The New Right and Human Rights: Cultural Freedom and the ‘Burchett Affair’”, Meanjin 3/1986.) Attempting to explain “the recent rise in Wilfred Burchett’s reputation”, Manne cites the family’s determination, anti-American sentiment since the invasion of Iraq, and the flaws of the Australian Left, but he omits a key factor: the falsity of charges long levelled by Burchett’s critics like himself.
Manne refers to “the Western left” today as “the most reliable defender of human rights”. Yet during the 1980s and 1990s he was most critical of those in “the western Left” who defended Burchett’s human rights.
Indeed, from 1985 to 2008, Manne himself had no word of criticism for the Australian government’s 17-year denial of a passport to Burchett, barring the return home of a third-generation citizen attached to his country. Nor did Manne condemn the gratuitous 15-year official refusal to register the births of Burchett’s Australian children.
Even now, he tiptoes reluctantly around this in the neutral passive voice: “Even if the denial of a passport to Burchett is seen as an injustice …” Maybe, Manne muses, “it was wrong to deprive Burchett of his passport when the decision had been taken not to bring him to trial. Yet, given what was known about Burchett’s activities in Korea, it is not difficult to sympathise with the instinct of the Menzies government that something needed to be done.”
Manne neglects to mention that by 1969 the Australian Security and Intelligence Organization (ASIO) was forced to concede that its intelligence on Burchett’s activities in Korea was so insubstantial that the Gorton Government considered it potentially defamatory. Australians like Burchett, and their children, Manne implies even now, deserve no defence of their citizenship rights.