Margaret Merrilees

I have a lively respect for Robert Manne, for his intelligence, his erudition and for his heroic service in the history wars. However, having read his essay "Agent of Influence" (June), I am moved to protest: "Sir, your underpants are showing."

First, there is Manne's tendency to conflate communism with various communist regimes, as in "the human catastrophe of communism". I assume that Manne would not speak of "the human catastrophe of democracy" - and yet a great many atrocities have been committed in the name of democracy.

Secondly, there is the issue of whether Burchett was a party member. Very likely, of course, but it is hardly surprising that he didn't say so, or even lied about it, in the context of the times.

Thirdly, there is Manne's chief witness for the prosecution, Tibor Méray. It may be quite unfair, but I have reservations about accepting the word of a defector (defecting in any direction) quite as wholeheartedly as does Manne. (I had the same problem with Manne's attitude to Petrov.) There is always the question of which master the witness is trying to serve. Isn't this exactly the problem with the POWs who made confessions relating to germ warfare? Not that they were voluntary defectors, but nor were they in a position to put the truth first.

Fourthly, there is the language which Manne uses about Méray, compared with the language he uses about Burchett. Burchett is erratic. He "changed his mind ... flew into action with a series of ferocious articles". He "drifted back to support for the ... Soviet Union". The possible evidence for his party membership is a "smoking gun". Méray, on the other hand, is reasonable and eager to do the right thing, "most convincing"; he "points out that the Chinese controlled every word that Burchett wrote". Manne states, "even so honest a communist as Tibor Méray at the time believed that the Americans were dropping biological warfare bombs on innocent Korean civilians. The difference was that Meray later recognised that the claim was false and was ashamed about the propaganda he had written." Would that have been after he defected, by any chance?

My fifth objection is Manne's repeated claim that Burchett betrayed his country. If Manne's argument is true, then Burchett's behaviour in Korea was dishonest and deeply reprehensible. It would have been a betrayal of the truth, and a betrayal of his ethical standards as a journalist. Whether that constitutes a betrayal of his country is another matter. He certainly disagreed with the Australian government, which was pursuing a dubious war in Korea at the behest of its ally, the US (sound familiar?). If he told lies, then they were certainly different lies from the ones his government was telling. There are always two sides to a propaganda war.

I do not want to defend the bias in Burchett's reporting on Eastern Europe or China or anywhere else, and I appreciate Robert Manne's determination to name such bias when he detects it. It is possible, however, that on the subject of communism there is a beam in his own eye.