Wilfrid Burchett is a hero of mine. But not a ‘hero’ in the sporting, military or celebrity context of which the term seems to apply almost exclusively today. Burchett is a genuine hero, the reporter who first revealed the ‘atomic plague’ unleashed in Hiroshima, exposing the lies of those seeking to cover up the atrocity.
At a time when we are subjected to the daily distortions of mainstream media, the unofficial self-censorship of uncomfortable news, and state-backed attempts to silence courageous truth-tellers such as Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning, the story of Wilfred Burchett reminds us of the importance of journalistic integrity.
Having grown up impoverished in rural Australia, Burchett had a hatred of injustice and inequality. As a young man he took on a number of jobs, including one with a gang of cane-cutters where he learned the importance of solidarity and comradeship. They shared their pay evenly, even if on some days, some cutters weren’t keeping up with the others. ‘We’re mates, not bloodhounds’ was the cutters’ philosophy.
In late 1938, he traveled to Germany to rescue his Jewish brother-in-law who had been arrested in Berlin . While there, Burchett wrote letters to Australian newspapers warning of the dangers of fascism. As a result of these dispatches, Burchett found his way into journalism, and soon became a correspondent for the Daily Express, reporting from China .
Then, in September 1945, he landed the ‘scoop of the century’. Sent to cover the Japanese surrender to General Douglas MacArthur on board the USS Missouri, Burchett slipped away to cover a bigger story and made the dangerous journey to Hiroshima. In his memoirs, At the Barricades, Burchett recounted what he saw when he arrived. ‘If the evidence of the material destruction of the city was horrifying,’ he wrote, ‘the effects on humans I saw inside the hospital wards were thousand times more so.’
Managing to get his report out, Burchett’s story appeared on the front page of the Daily Express on 6 th September 1945. ‘An Atomic Plague’ ran the headline, while Burchett’s report began, ‘I write this as a warning to the world.’ Days later, arriving back in Tokyo, Burchett attended a press conference being held by high-ranking American officers. A scientist in brigadier-general’s uniform was refuting the facts reported by Burchett and denying the existence of any atomic radiation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
When Burchett stood up to challenge the spokesman, he was dismissed as having ‘fallen victim to Japanese propaganda’ and the press conference came to an abrupt end. The ‘official truth’, as fellow Australian journalist John Pilger calls it, decreed there was no radiation in Hiroshima. And the claims of the military were backed up by an acquiescent media. Plus ca change …..
Following Burchett’s intervention, Hiroshima was declared out of bounds and General MacArthur issued an expulsion order for Burchett for ‘having gone beyond the bounds of his military occupation.’ But the truth could not be hidden for long. Soon the world would witness for itself the horrors that had been unleashed on the men, women and children of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In the years that followed, Burchett would continue to report from places such as North Korea, Vietnam and Eastern Europe, always seeking to tell the story as he saw it. However, as he wrote from ‘the other side’ and didn’t conform to the ‘official truth’, critics described him as a biased, communist sympathizer, in contrast to that paragon of objectivity that is the establishment media. Burchett was even labeled a traitor and denied his Australian passport by a government claiming he gave support to its enemies.
But as he himself said, his responsibility was to the readers. Whether it was reporting cease-fire talks in Korea, sending dispatches from the jungles of Vietnam, or relaying the horrors of atomic warfare to an unsuspecting world, Burchett sought to tell the truth.
In his autobiography, Burchett revealed his journalistic philosophy. ‘The point of departure,’ he wrote, ‘is great faith in ordinary human beings and the sane and decent way they behave when they have the true facts of the case.’
These words explain why Wilfred Burchett was such a widely respected reporter, fearless truth-teller and genuine hero.