Riots in America; ever-intensifying geostrategic competition; inequality and poverty growing continually. Are the divisions taking on an existential quality?
Foreign writers in Asia have a romantic pedigree. Tales abound of Somerset Maugham at the Raffles helped perhaps by copious rounds of Singapore Sling. Rudyard Kipling reported prodigiously mainly from India and was rewarded with the Nobel Prize in literature.
Times have changed. Just about everyone nowadays travels to parts of Asia to experience for themselves. Employers can ill-afford foreign bureaus and correspondents. The world has taken on a much sharper edge. International hard contestation is now the rule rather than the exception. Governments use every means possible to increase their advantage, and that includes using journalists.
Even a century ago, Maugham eventually was recruited by British intelligence during WWI and Kipling, a staunch supporter of Empire, was persuaded to write propaganda leaflets for the war effort.
Journalists nowadays can expect to be thoroughly probed by just about everyone, friends and foes in equal measure, looking for sympathies, vulnerabilities, vices, anything that can be used to recruit or compromise a reporter. Every country tries to do it, some more clumsily than others. A certain agency of a powerful friend is up there with the very best.
Remember Wilfred Graham Burchett
Melbourne-born Burchett wrote for various papers during another existential time, the Cold War. His groundbreaking reports of the “atomic plague” after the bombs in Japan were not welcomed by the Americans. His writings were dismissed as pro-Japanese propaganda.
He began to question the morality of untrammelled American military might. According to a number of accounts, he became anti-American and pro-Soviet, returning to Australia in 1950 to campaign against the Menzies government’s Communist Party dissolution bill.
In China, he had been dismayed by the corruption of the Kuomintang government and later wrote sympathetically about the communists. In Korea, he alleged atrocities by American soldiers. Also, that American aircraft had conducted germ-warfare raids over North Korea and China in early 1952. In Vietnam, reporting from both sides of the conflict, he concluded early that the communists would prevail. The US Far Eastern Command (FEC) was outraged. Burchett was branded a traitor.
Australia attempted to collect evidence with a view to prosecuting Burchett for treason. ASIO agents were despatched to Japan and Korea to collect evidence, but their investigations uncovered little. ASIO advised that the case against him was “incomplete”. In early 1954, the government conceded there was no hope of prosecuting him.
Monash University academic Tom Heenan makes this point which may perhaps be just as relevant today: “To deter him from returning to Australia, the government publicly kept open the prospect of prosecution while privately acknowledging it had little chance of success.”
In 1955, Burchett “lost” the British passport on which he had always travelled; he said it was stolen. He applied for an Australian one and requested that his two children be registered as Australian citizens. At Menzies’ direction, the government rejected both applications and asked the British Foreign Office not to grant him a new passport.
Burchett was subjected to government-backed smear campaigns and barred from Australia. Repeated requests for the restoration of his Australian passport were refused. According to the then-immigration minister, Harold Holt, Burchett had “severed all connection with Australia” because of his “activities” abroad.
The Whitlam government finally granted him a passport.
And Peter Anthony Russo
Accounts of Russo paint him as a controversial figure in Australian journalism who was scornful of his fellow foreign correspondents. He constantly challenged Cold War orthodoxies, especially conservative theories of communist expansion in Asia, stressing the importance of anti-colonial motivations in Asian politics.
His hostility toward American foreign policy brought him to the attention of ASIO, which monitored his phone conversations with, among others, the communist novelist Judah Waten. He fell out with his employer, Murdoch, after his sympathetic analysis of the Indonesian independence leader Sukarno in December 1945 was refused publication.
Echoes of the past today
If there is just one takeaway from the Burchett and Russo stories, it may be that when a country considers itself at war, even if just an ideological cold war, there is little room for regular journalism. In a climate of “with us or against us”, there is no room for neutrality, or balance, or fair reporting. Many parts of today’s media may well find echoes from that time in the present.
The fractures today are as deep as during that Cold War period with comparable risks for journalists. Instead of the Soviets, there is China. This time, it’s more than just politics, more than communism vs representative democracy. Mostly, it’s about a clash of evolving economic ideas. What remains unchanged is the seeming existential quality of the face-off.
A new player, some say an echo of 1920-30s capitalism, is neoliberalism in full bloom. Sometimes called laissez-faire market economics or more derisively trickle-down economics, neoliberalism has since the Berlin Wall’s fall caused new, deep fractures and divisions even within national borders. These divisions can be found in the roots of the term “1% vs 99%”, in the great wealth and power that rests in a tiny minority in the US, in the seeming inability of the majority to better their lives despite living in a liberal democracy and flourishing economy.
Most recently, neoliberalism has shown its face in the ability of some to flee the virus to their country retreats while the less fortunate are left in inner-city slums without healthcare. And perhaps the last straw — extended footage of a policeman slowly taking a life with, was it, a smug look on his face. Powerful echoes of US history from Depression days.
While the killing was a metaphor of the many injustices to coloured people in the US and many other countries, it may also have been seen by some other countries as a symbol of the domination of their countries, first by colonialism, and now by a US-constructed post-war international economic infrastructure which facilitates dollar dominance and the ability to impose crushing economic sanctions on those sovereign states which choose not to capitulate.
Part 2/2: The China factor; Raids; Security laws; Journalism
(John Tan was a deputy editor in the Straits Times newspaper in Singapore. He has been foreign editor, business editor and economics correspondent.)