‘After all these years: Wilfred Burchett highlights reel’, Honest History, 30 September 2015
Wilfred Burchett shouldered his way back into Honest History’s consideration recently, first, when we revived his justly famous article about Hiroshima and, secondly, when we were pointed to Rupert Lockwood’s reminiscences about Burchett’s life as Australian exile, wary Moscow resident and Vietnam War chronicler. The author of this note is old enough to recall the feelings Burchett evoked in the 1960s and 1970s and the occasional flurries more recently about his alleged treachery and whether or not he was paid by the KGB. There is a lot of literature on this but here we highlight just two articles that are reasonably representative of this body of work. Both articles link to other material.
Tom Heenan, Ben Kiernan, Greg Lockhart, Stuart Macintyre, and Gavan McCormack, ‘Manne of influence: Wilfred Burchett and Australia’s long Cold War‘, Online Opinion, 4 July 2008
This jointly-authored piece responded to earlier pieces by Robert Manne and Mark Aarons and a joint appearance by them both on Phillip Adams’ Late Night Live on the ABC. The article is long, detailed and forensic, particularly of Manne’s work. It claims there have been changes in Manne’s views over the years and points to differing perceptions of Burchett over this time.
The authors conclude with a reference to Burchett being denied an Australian passport for a number of years:
We believe that advances in the cause of human rights will come more easily without dividing scholars into “Left” and “Right”, or into “pro-Burchett” or “anti-Burchett” parties. These banal oppositions provide no explanatory power. There are plenty of fine people on both sides, and Burchett’s long life displayed plenty of nuances and contradictions. Honest people can disagree about whether he should be honoured for some of the things he did, and criticised for others. But if the cause of human rights in Australia is to progress, there can be no ideological excuse for a government depriving a citizen of his rights, let alone depriving his children of theirs.
Just this month, one of the joint authors of the 2008 piece, Tom Heenan, said this:
Burchett wrote stories that the Australian and US governments preferred not to be told and paid the price. He covered wars in which Australians fought on the other side. He was not “a my country right or wrong” barracker, but reported the facts as he saw them, and for the most part got them right. His career should be judged on all his achievements and not reduced to a solitary story.
Robert Manne, ‘Wilfred Burchett and the KGB‘, The Monthly, August 2013
Manne summarises lists of Burchett ‘supporters’ and ‘enemies’. He then repeats his earlier claims that Burchett was paid a monthly stipend by the Soviet intelligence service, the KGB. He makes a detailed examination of the evidence for this, considering the claims of the former KGB operative, Yuri Krotkov, but relying heavily on later material from dissident, Vladimir Bukovsky. Manne recounts how Bukovsky, during the Yeltsin period, scanned masses of old KGB and other Soviet-era documents and found evidence from 1957 that the KGB recommended to the Central Committee of the Communist Party that Burchett be ‘signed up’ and paid.
Considering that Burchett, by his personal qualities and extensive links in political and journalistic circles represents unquestionable operative interest, we have taken a decision to engage Burchett in collaboration with the organs of the KGB.
On our instructions, Burchett is seeking opportunities to penetrate the American and West European press.
Taking into account our interest in the journalistic activity of Burchett for the bourgeois press, in a direction that is desirable for us, and also in his covert co-operation in the Soviet press, the Committee for State Security requests the payment to Burchett of a one-time subsidy in the sum of 20,000 roubles and the establishment for him of a monthly subsidy in the sum of 4000 roubles.
The Central Committee accepted the KGB recommendation but cut back the monthly subsidy to 3000 roubles.
The Bukovsky evidence, readily available for many years and now online, leaves questions unanswered, for example, how long the payments continued, given Burchett’s later support for China. Manne also records that his own views about the KGB payments have changed over the years; he is now convinced that Burchett was indeed in the pay of the KGB. Manne presented a more general assessment of Burchett in an article in 2008.
And so …
So there he is, Wilfred Burchett, or at least part of him. Maybe, just maybe, ‘after all these years’ it is now possible to look soberly at Burchett and his many-sided story and to consider all of the evidence about the man in a balanced way, without rancour, without reigniting hot battles from the Cold War era. Maybe.
Note: both Robert Manne and Stuart Macintyre are distinguished supporters of Honest History and we are honoured to have them in that capacity.