COLUMN

Reading between the party lines

Media should differentiate between commentators and collaborators

Barbara Amiel May 25 1981
COLUMN

Reading between the party lines

Media should differentiate between commentators and collaborators

Barbara Amiel May 25 1981

Reading between the party lines

COLUMN

Media should differentiate between commentators and collaborators

Barbara Amiel

When Janet Cooke, a 26-year-old black reporter on The Washington Post, admitted that her Pulitzer Prize-winning story of child heroin addict “Jimmy” was a fake, a good deal of ink was spent on analysing the case. The fuss notwithstanding, I can see only two minor lessons to be learned from the Cooke affair. The first is—lest anyone doubted it—that double-minority employees, while they may be no worse, are certainly no holier than anyone else. The second lesson is that in today’s left-liberal-dominated media, a writer who has the correct point of view and personal credentials will not have his or her work subjected to quite the same rigorous checking as someone of non-leftist views. This double standard has its advantages: should I win a Pulitzer Prize it won’t have to be returned.

But these are minor lessons. It is not the brazen liars who are the significant problem in media reportage. The real problem comes when the media fails to note the dividing line that separates commentators of whatever political persuasion from actual collaborators—who in the past have ranged from a high of Ezra Pound to a low of Tokyo Rose. To avoid misunderstanding, let me again affirm the right of people to freely say, write or disseminate opinions whatever their political persuasion. Going one step further, I believe that even collaborators should have the same freedom. It’s just that in a decent, ethical press the collaborators’ interests should be declared. A case in point is At the Barricades, the new book by Paris-based Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett.

Burchett’s book is an account of his 40-year career reporting events from Hiroshima to Hanoi. He covered the Second World War for Lord Beaverbrook’s London Daily Express and scored a major coup as the first correspondent to enter Hiroshima after the bomb. In 1949, after covering the Mindszenty trial in Budapest, Burchett took up residence in Hungary and married a Bulgarian journalist. From then on he covered world events not only from the Communist perspective, but the Communist side. The following facts about him are undisputed. Burchett went to the Korean peace talks with the Chinese and North Korean delegation and covered them from behind North Korean lines as an accredited correspondent for the French communist newspaper Ce Soir. In 1974 Burchett lost a libel case in Australia during which ex-prisoners of war from North Korea flew in to testify about Burchett’s involvement in camp interrogation and forced propaganda confessions of germ warfare. The most eloquent testimony came from FusilierDerek Kinne, recipient of the George Cross for gallantry in captivity. Kinne’s evidence described allied POWs chanting “you will hang, you will hang” to Burchett who, Kinne said, dressed in a Chinese army uniform, gave them indoctrination lectures. After the Australian government refused to return his confiscated passport in the post-Korean years, Burchett travelled first on a North Vietnamese laissez-passer and later on a Cuban passport. In the ’60s and early ’70s Burchett was in Hanoi writing mainly for an obscure U.S. Maoist paper the Guardian.

I have no idea whether any of these actions would fulfil the legal definition of treason. I am not worried about establishing whether Burchett is a paid agent of Moscow, as U.S.S.R. KGB defector Yuri Krotkov testified to a U.S. Senate hearing, or an unpaid true believer. It might show a less deeply rooted moral sickness to sell your services to such a murderous ideology than to work for it out of pure admiration. I’m not interested in either prosecuting or silencing people such as Burchett—only identifying them. When such a person writes a book (of apologist propaganda of the crudest kind, in which Stalin is seriously represented as having been duped into the show trials by the CIA) it is not enough for a reviewer to say, as Thomas Powers did two months ago in The New York Times Book Review, that “It is what Mr. Burchett has put into his book that matters, not what he has left out.” What Burchett has left out of his memoirs are all the charges of collaboration levelled against him. It was fraud by omission, far more dangerous than Janet Cooke’s, when CBC’s As It Happens used Burchett as a Southeast Asian commentator and identified him only as “an Australian journalist.” I would never forbid g dear old Mother CBC or The New York Times to employ such a person—even as an expert on Southeast Asia. But at the very minimum he should be identified as another CBC news program employing Burchett did, by describing him as a “communist journalist.”

Coincidentally, in 1974 a Russian was expelled from Canada for, among other things, buying stories about Canadian journalists. The person selling the Russian this information was a producer on CBC’s As It Happens. The information wasn’t secret and the producer didn’t think, then or later, that there was anything wrong in selling it to a friendly Russian colleague. The same producer, Mark Starowicz, is now heading the upcoming flagship CBC current affairs show The Journal, which will be telling Canadians all about world events every night starting this fall. I have, of course, no way of knowing whether Burchett will be used on the program and, if so, whether he will be identified as anything other than an Australian journalist.