Tuesday, August 30, 2011

DOCUMENTARY FILM The rebel reporter


Wilfred Burchett paid a heavy price for reporting unpopular news. His exploits are detailed in a documentary being shown at the FCCT tonight

He has been hailed as one of the most influential journalists of the past 60 years, an author of 35 books, many of them ground-breaking. Yet he was also the subject of cheap, ugly and persistent smears, among them claims he was a "Stalinist hack" in the pay of the KGB.
Wilfred Burchett was an extraordinary correspondent - an Australian damned by his own government, and Washington - for daring to report, as one biography says, "the other side of the world".
He came from farming stock in Gippsland in the southeast, raised with strict "Methodist values" by a father who was a lay preacher. In the 1930s, he journeyed to Europe and was later praised for helping Jews flee the Nazis and gain refugee status Down Under.
In 1945, the year of his "big bang", as one of his sons put it. Burchett sneaked into Hiroshima and discovered a secret the Americans were keen to put a lid on: radiation from the world's first atomic bomb was killing thousands. His dispatch to the Daily Express in London appeared under the headline: "Atomic Plague: I write this as a warning to the world".
"In Hiroshima, 30 days after the first atomic bomb destroyed the city and shook the world, people are still dying, mysteriously and horribly - people who were uninjured by the cataclysm - from an unknown something which I can only describe as atomic plague," he wrote.
The tally of counted dead was 53,000. Another 30,000 were missing and almost certainly dead. Those near the centre of the explosion simply "vanished", he said, probably vapourised by the intense heat from the bomb on August 6. More troubling was the fact they were still dying at a rate of 100 people a day.
He confronted a US scientist at a press conference in Tokyo shortly after. "Eventually the exchanges narrowed down to my asking how he explained the fish still dying when they entered a stream running through the centre of the city… the spokesman looked pained. 'I'm afraid you've fallen victim to Japanese propaganda', he said and sat down."
In a foreward for 'Rebel Journalism' - a compilation of Burchett's writings put together by his son George, colleague John Pilger said "Wilfred had blown a momentous cover-up and was never forgiven for understanding and telling the truth, and telling it first".
In the 1950s he travelled to Korea to cover the peace talks, after having been advised by senior Chinese officials not to take much luggage, as he'd only be away a few weeks. But he was stuck there for three years, and suffered more problems after accusing the US of germ warfare attacks. They, in turn, accused him of interrogating and torturing Allied prisoners.
Prof Gavan McCormack, an academic in Canberra, wrote (in the same 2007 book as Pilger): "What [Burchett] reported was diametrically opposed to the way the political and military leadership of the West saw the war, and tried, falsely, to present it. When the false, garbled and malicious stories of his activities in Korea are discounted, what remains is the portrait of an honest man who tried to tell the truth, who was almost alone in seeing the war primarily from the viewpoint of the suffering Korean people rather than of the great powers."
The Australian government cancelled his passport in 1955 and he was forced to travel for 17 years on official documents provided by Hanoi, until the left-wing Whitlam government won office in 1972 and gave him a new passport. Burchett launched a legal challenge against claims he mistreated Allied prisoners held in a camp during the Korean War. The allegations were never proven, but he lost the court case - and a bundle - on a technicality.
The exploits of the legendary Aussie writer are back in the spotlight as the centenary of his birth approaches, next month. A documentary about Burchett will be screened at the FCCT tonight, with veteran film-maker David Bradbury flying up to introduce and speak about the correspondent, who died in 1983, and his film "Public Enemy Number One".
Wilfred's son George - the second of three children by his second Bulgarian wife Vessa - visited Bangkok recently to open an exhibition at the club of his father's photos of women during the '50s and '60s. The photos showing here (for just two more days), are part of an even bigger show being launched in Hanoi next month.
A big fan of his father's work, George voiced anger and dismay that some academics and right-wingers "in their ivory towers" still viewed Wilfred as a sell-out, upset that they had tainted his legacy. "He was always reporting something worth reporting… he was a man of the world.. a wonderful person and they called him a traitor, a KGB agent, a torturer, a brainwasher, a Stalinist hack."
His dad was closest to the "immensely charismatic" Ho Chi Minh, he said, but also on good terms with Sihanouk, the princes in Laos in the early 60s, Chou En-lai, and Henry Kissinger, who sought his advice on negotiating an end to the war in Vietnam.
Prior to Japan, Wilfred had travelled from Singapore to Burma, where he survived a machine-gun attack, before journeying overland to India for medical treatment. Thirty years later they lived "very happily" in Cambodia prior to the CIA-orchestrated coup against Sihanouk in 1970, before moving to Paris while "dad" covered the peace talks, and reported on wars in Angola and southern Africa near the end of his days.
"His life was one big adventure and he loved every bit of it. He was like a journo's journo," George said.
"He thought the Cold War wasn't the Russians fault. He saw a new world that was anti-colonialist, socialist, with mass movements seeking to liberate themselves. He wrote books for people back home. He was self-taught but curious about the world."
- "Public Enemy Number One" screens at 8 tonight at the FCCT, in the penthouse of the Maneeya building on Ploenchit Road, near Chitlom BTS station.
- An exhibition of Burchett's historic photos are on show until tomorrow at the club.


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