Three Extraordinary Australian Journalists: Burchett, Pilger & Assange

They span three generations and give their country reason to be enormously proud, writes Rick Sterling. All have depended on freedom of the press, which is now at stake.

By Rick Sterling
Mint Press

Australia has produced extraordinary journalists across three generations:  Wilfred Burchett (deceased in 1983), John Pilger (80 years old but still active) and Julian Assange (48 years old, currently in London’s Belmarsh prison).

Each of these journalists made unique contributions to our understanding of the world. Although Australia is part of the Western world, each of these journalists exposed and criticized Western foreign policy.

Wilfred Burchett

Wilfred Burchett lived from 1911 to 1983. He was a farm boy and his experience in the Depression shaped his dislike of oligarchs and preference for the poor.  He went to Europe trying to volunteer for Republicans in the Spanish Civil War but that did not work out.  Instead, he assisted Jews escaping Nazi Germany.

Wilfred Burchett. (From the cover of his autobiography, “At the Barricades.”)

Burchett became a journalist by accident. Having seen the reality in Germany, he started writing many letters to newspaper editors. One of the editors took note of his fluid writing style and intensity. They contacted him to ask if he would like to report for them. Thus began a 40-year writing career.

He covered World War II, first while stationed with British troops in India then Burma. Then he covered the Pacific campaign while stationed with U.S. troops.  He was the first international journalist to report on Hiroshima after the atomic-bomb attack. He evaded U.S. military restrictions to go to Hiroshima and see reality for himself. In his story “The Atomic Plague,” published in The London Daily Express, Burchett said, “I write this as a warning to the world” and “Doctors fall as they work.”   In response, the U.S. immediately launched a campaign to smear his reputation and deny the validity of his story. The U.S. military was intent on preventing people from knowing the long-term effects of nuclear radiation.

Burchett’s report from Hiroshima was broadcast worldwide and was called the “scoop of the century.” It exemplified a reporting career based on first-hand observation and experience.

Over his 40-year career he reported the other side of the story from the Soviet Union, China, Korea and Vietnam. He wrote thousands of articles and over 35 books.  On China he wrote “China’s Feet Unbound” in 1952. Two decades later he wrote (with Rewi Alley) “China: The Quality of Life.”

Burchett wrote “Vietnam: The Inside Story of a Guerrilla War” (1965) “My War with the CIA: The Memoirs of Prince Norodom Sihanouk” (1974), “Grasshoppers and Elephants: Why Vietnam Fell” (1977) and then “Catapult to Freedom: The Survival of the Vietnamese People” (1978).

Burchett’s life, experiences and observations are brilliantly recorded in his autobiography “At the Barricades: Forty Years on the Cutting Edge of History” (1980). They reveal his hard-scrabble youth and early years, his leftist sympathies, his decades of journalistic work.

Burchett was vilified by Establishment political leaders in Australia. His Australian passport was taken, the government refused to issue him a new one and he was barred from entering Australia. Even his children were denied their Australian citizenship. Finally, after 17 years, Wilfred Burchett’s citizenship and passport were restored when Gough Whitlam became prime minister in 1972.

With his unassuming and affable manner, Wilfred Burchett became friends with leaders such as Ho Chi Minh, Norodom Sihanouk  and Chou en Lai. Bertrand Russell said, “One man, Wilfred Burchett, alerted Western public opinion to the nature of this war and the struggle of the Vietnamese people.”

This interview gives a glimpse into the character and personality of Wilfred Burchett.

John Pilger

After starting journalism in the early 1960s, Pilger became a war correspondent covering Vietnam, Cambodia, Bangladesh and Biafra. He worked 25 years at London’s Daily Mirrorand then had a regular fortnightly column for 23 years at the New Statesman

John Pilger.

His first documentary, “The Quiet Mutiny,” depicted U.S. soldiers in Vietnam resisting their officers and the war. In 1974, when Palestine was often unmentionable, he produced “Palestine is Still the Issue.” Nineteen years later, he produced the second part and described how Palestine is still the issue.

John Pilger has written/edited over 10 books and made over 50 films. He told the story of atrocities in Pol Pot’s Cambodia with “Year Zero.”  He exposed Indonesia’s strangle hold on East Timor in “Death of a Nation: The Timor Conspiracy.”  In a four-year investigation, he showed how working-class victims of the drug thalidomide had been excluded from a settlement with the drug company. 

John Pilger exposed uncomfortable truths about his home country and its treatment of aboriginal people. He did this through films including “The Secret Country: First Australians Fight Back”(1985), “Welcome to Australia”(1999), and “Utopia: An Epic Story of Struggle and Resistance”(2013).  He gives more history and detail in the book “A Secret Country”(1992).

In 2002 Pilger produced a movie and book titled “The New Rulers of the World,”revealing the grotesque inequality of globalization, in which a few individuals and corporations have more power and wealth than entire countries. 

In 2016 Pilger came out with the urgent and prescient video “The Coming War with China.” 

More recently he produced “The Dirty War on the NHS,”which documents the stealth campaign to privatize the U.K.’s National Health System. Many of John Pilger’s films can be seen at his website

In the 1960s and ‘70s, Pilger’s brave and bold journalism earned him many awards. He was twice recognized as Journalist of the Year.  But in recent years, there has been less acceptance as media has become more homogenized and controlled.  In 2018 Pilger said, “My written journalism is no longer welcome – probably it’s last home was The Guardian, which three years ago got rid of people like me and others in pretty much a purge …”  

Harold Pinter, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, says “John Pilger unearths, with steely attention, the facts, the filthy truth. and tells it like it is.”

Julian Assange

Julian Assange (Twitter)

Born on July 3, 1971, he became a skilled computer programmer and hacker as a teenager. Later Julian Assange  studied mathematics and physics at Melbourne University. According to one of his math teachers he was an exceptional student but he clearly had other tasks and priorities.

Assange has edited or co-authored at least four books. For three years he worked with Australian journalist and co-author Suelette Dreyfus to write “Underground : Tales of Hacking, Madness and Obsession in the Electronic Frontier.” First published in 1997, the Sydney Morning Herald called it “astonishing.” Rolling Stone described it as “an entirely original focus on the bizarre lives and crimes of an extraordinary group of teenage hackers.” 

In 2012, Assange produced the TV series “The World Tomorrow.” In over 12 segments, he interviews Ecuador President Rafael Correa; the current President of Pakistan Imran Khan; the leader of Hezbollah Hasan Nasrallah; leaders in the Occupy movement; Noam Chomsky; Tariq Ali; and many more.

In 2013, Assange and WikiLeaks produced the movie Mediastan.” It shows WikiLeaks’ global travels to meet publishers of the secret documents.  In 2014 OR Books published “When WikiLeaks met Google,” a discussion between Julian Assange and Google founder Eric Schmidt plus two companions. Assange writes a 51-page introduction which puts the discussion in context: how Google and other internet giants have become part of the U.S. foreign policy Establishment.

In 2015 Assange edited “The WikiLeaks files: the World According to the US Empire.” In the 2016 book “Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet,” Assange and three other  computer experts discuss the future of the internet and whether computers will emancipate or enslave us. According to one reviewer, “These guys are really getting at the heart of some very big issues that practically no one (outside of Cypherpunk circles) is thinking about.”

But what makes Assange extraordinary is his work as editor in chief and publisher of WikiLeaks. Following are a few examples of information they have conveyed to the public:

* Corruption by family and associates of Kenyan leader Daniel Arap Moi.

* Corruption at Kaupthing Bank in the Iceland financial crisis.

* Dumping of toxic chemicals in Ivory Coast.

* Killing of  Reuters journalists and Iraqi civilians by U.S. Apache attack helicopter in “Collateral Murder” video.

* 92,000 documents on the war in Afghanistan (and civilian casualties previously hidden).

* 400,000 documents on the war in Iraq (including reports showing the U.S. military ignoring torture by their Iraqi allies).

* Corruption in Tunisia (helping spark the Arab Spring).

* NSA spying on German leader Merkel, Brazilian leader Roussef, French presidents (Sarkozy, Hollande, Chirac) and more.

* Secret agreements in the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership.

* Emails and files from the U.S. Democratic National Committee.

* CIA spying and other tools (“Vault 7”).

Julian Assange has received many honors, including: the Sam Adams Award, Time’s Person of the Year, Le Monde Person of the Year, Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism, Sydney Peace Foundation Gold Medal and the Serena Shim Award.

In the video below, Larry Philip Buttrose, an Australian writer, journalist and academic, compares Assange to Wilfred Burchett and says Assange should be celebrated. 

But Assange has incurred the wrath and enmity of the U.S. government. The “Collateral Damage” video and war logs exposed the brutal reality of U.S. aggression and occupation.  Kofi Annan, former secretary general of the United Nations, said the U.S. invasion of Iraq violated international law. But there has been no accountability.

In response to WikiLeaks’ revelations, the United States has ignored the crimes and gone after the messenger who revealed the crimes. Thus, Julian Assange was confined to the Ecuador embassy in London for seven years and is now in Belmarsh maximum security prison.  The U.S. wants him extradited to the U.S, where he has been charged with 18 counts of  “illegally obtaining, receiving and disclosing classified Information.”  The extradition hearing is scheduled to begin on Feb. 24. 

Across Three Generations

Australia should be proud of these exceptional native sons. Each one has made huge contributions to educating the public about crucial events.

Wilfred Burchett reported from the “other side” when the West was waging war on Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and China. He was demonized and even called “Public Enemy No. 1” during the Cold War.  But those who read his reports and numerous books found an accurate and objective writer. His work stands the test of time.

Since the ‘60s, John Pilger has given us stories that were never or rarely told.  He has exposed facts and drawn conclusions which shame or should shame powerful forces, whether in the U.K., U.S. or Australia. He has documented the real heroes who are otherwise ignored.

Julian Assange is from the new generation. He has reported and published secret information about military-political power on “this side.” He has revealed truths which powerful forces do not want the public to know, even when it is being done in their name.

Now Assange is in prison and in danger of being extradited to the United States. If this is allowed to  happen, it will mark a crushing setback and perhaps the death of independent investigative journalism.

John Pilger is a major supporter of Julian Assange. So is the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer. In a blockbuster interview Melzer says:

Nils Melzer. (UN Photo)

“I have never seen a comparable case….The Swedish authorities … intentionally left him in limbo. Just imagine being accused of rape for nine-and-a-half years by an entire state apparatus and the media without ever being given the chance to defend yourself because no charges have ever been filed.” He goes to describe reading the original Swedish documents, saying “I could hardly believe my eyes…. a rape had never taken place at all…. the woman’s testimony was later changed by the Stockholm police… I have all the documents in my possession, the emails, the text messages.” 


Melzer describes the refusal of governments to comply with his requests. He sums up what is happening and its significance:

“A show trial is to be used to make an example of Julian Assange….. Four democratic countries joined forces – the U.S., Ecuador, Sweden, and the U.K. – to leverage their power to portray one man as a monster so that he could be later burned at the stake without any outcry. The case is a huge scandal and represents the failure of Western rule of law. If Julian Assange is convicted, it will be a death sentence for freedom of the press.”

The three extraordinary Australian journalists were all rebels and all international. They all depended on freedom of the press, which is now at stake.

A version of this article first appeared on Mint Press News.

Rick Sterling is an independent investigative journalist. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and can be contacted at [email protected].

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

Please donate to Consortium News. 

Before commenting please read Robert Parry’s Comment Policy. Allegations unsupported by facts, gross or misleading factual errors and ad hominem attacks, and abusive or rude language toward other commenters or our writers will not be published.  If your comment does not immediately appear, please be patient as it is manually reviewed. For security reasons, please refrain from inserting links in your comments, which should not be longer than 300 words.

20 comments for “Three Extraordinary Australian Journalists: Burchett, Pilger & Assange

  1. Lily
    February 10, 2020 at 18:31

    After this article only an idiot can maintain that Julian Assange is no journalist. On the contrary J.A. belongs to the first leage of journalists of all time.

    Now we know how long the US has practised lying to the world about their crimes and how long the Australian government has been a slave to the imperium. This great article makes it clear how great and couragious humans can be.

    Thank you Rick Sterling for your good work.

  2. February 10, 2020 at 17:34

    Wonderful tribute to three brave journalists! I only discovered Pilger in 2015, introduced to me by an old college boyfriend that I am still in contact with. I am writing letters of support to Assange in prison. I will do what I can to prevent his extradition to the States but given my fierce, 4.5 year battle against the corrupt “leaders” who supposedly represent me in the US Congress and The White House and my total failure to change one mind, influence one politician, I despair at being effective. I plan to leave the USA….before the end of the year. I do see hope in our young people…(some of our young people, that is ), but I can no longer wait for the huge cultural, political, and social changes that need to happen here, en masse, in order to get the country (USA) on the right track. So, I plan to relocate to a less violent, less militarized, less Christianized Fascist, more just, and more humane country.

  3. Brewer
    February 10, 2020 at 16:13

    An excellent book:
    Tell Me No Lies is a celebration of the very best investigative journalism, and includes writing by some of the greatest practitioners of the craft: Seymour Hersh on the My Lai massacre; Paul Foot on the Lockerbie cover-up; Wilfred Burchett, the first Westerner to enter Hiroshima following the atomic bombing; Israeli journalist Amira Hass, reporting from the Gaza Strip in the 1990s; Gunter Wallraff, the great German undercover reporter; Jessica Mitford on ‘The American Way of Death’; Martha Gelhorn on the liberation of the death camp at Dachau.
    John Pilger sets each piece of reporting in its context and introduces the collection with a passionate essay arguing that the kind of journalism he celebrates here is being subverted by the very forces that ought to be its enemy. Taken as a whole, the book tells an extraordinary ‘secret history’ of the modern era. It is also a call to arms to journalists everywhere – before it is too late.

    • Lily
      February 11, 2020 at 01:37


      thank you for this information. I will get this book. It was Günther Wallraff who – together with two former ministers and one member of the Bundestag (for the Left) – has launched the initiative in Germany which resulted in the advertisment with 130 public people’s signatures printed in the FAZ and the press conference that has been documented in all the main media including two TV channels. Unfortunately theses most effective events came rather late – really widespreading only since the Melzer Report.

      I can’t help being reminded of the biblical story of Egypt and the seven plagues. “And God hardened the Pharao’s heart and he did not let the People go”. And i wonder about the hearts of these UK persons who are responsible for keeping this great man in prison in spite of all.

      It took them five months to even answer Melzer’s letter.

  4. February 10, 2020 at 09:18

    As a volunteer in solidarity of Dominican Republic’s foremost Whistleblower journalist Mr. Marino Zapete, who is facing a Lawfare trial for denouncing government corruption, I find this article as an incredible Freedomofthepress treasure chest, & key reference for whistleblower journalism. Whistleblower journalists everywhere need unconditional support, & should they face government persecution or judicial retaliation, their cases must be internationalized in order to garner effectivel support. I’m keeping this article for reference. Freedomofthepress is at stake & we can’t be mere spectators.

  5. Graeme Watt
    February 10, 2020 at 06:32

    Thank you so much for this informative and extremely well written article on these three outstanding Australian journalists.

    Graeme Watt (South Africa)

  6. February 10, 2020 at 00:57

    I love that these three fine Journalists and Internationalists are being honored in this article. It is revealing that the US and Australian governments conspired to try to silence and punish Wilfred Burchett as they now conspire globally to silence and punish Julian Assange. The reason they are so intent on this is because in their drive to maintain US global hegemony, they know they will go on commit many more war crimes, which they are afraid to have revealed. The US and all Western capitalist govts are seeing the movement of the international working class against corruption, inequality and war. Protests have erupted all over the world, and all because masses of people have become aware of the crimes, thanks to Julian and Wikileaks. I will be continuing to fight to expose these crimes as Julian has and fighting to have him released. It’s not over yet and the working class has only just started to move. Let the US Military and capitalists shake in their shoes at the coming struggles. They have everything to lose.

  7. Bob Herrschaft
    February 9, 2020 at 22:30

    Nice tribute to three great Australians, Rick. I would only add Australian.,Caitlin Johnstone, seems to be of the same great tradition.

  8. Mike mills-thom
    February 9, 2020 at 22:13

    We…each and every citizen that vslues our saftey and freedom NEED to lay under the wheels of any bus that wiill transport this man (julian assange)to america.
    Just because the pwers dont like what THEY have done dosent make it illegal to talk about!!!!
    Make some noise people or these governments will kill this man in OUR name!!!!!

  9. Sam F
    February 9, 2020 at 21:50

    Cheers for Burchett, Pilger, Assange, and all of our brave independent journalists, upon which civilization very much depends.

    Indeed the US attack on Mr. Assange reflects the US setback of democracy, the corruption of the all branches of the USG and mass media, and the tentacles of its corruption in UK and Sweden. Does the UK need such an excuse to set him free? Perhaps Russia should extradite him for massive war crimes and then discover its error. Or some nation exchange him for captured UK folks.

  10. GMCasey
    February 9, 2020 at 19:47

    America, UK and Australia and you too Sweden:
    Maybe you don’t think Julian Assange matters, but he does. Please remember, while you 4 nations attempt to convince the world of your truths—-we see how you treat real truth tellers. Not only have you ruined your own reputations , but I think that you unknowingly ruined your own tourism. Who would want to visit any nations—where TRUTH is erased and writers persecuted?

  11. Kim Looi
    February 9, 2020 at 15:34

    To borrow a remark made by a British journalist who famously said,
    Wilfred Burchett , John Pilger and Julian Assange are a necessary nuisance.

  12. jmg
    February 9, 2020 at 14:39

    > Three Extraordinary Australian Journalists: Burchett, Pilger & Assange

    A few relevant quotes:

    “My emotional and intellectual response to Hiroshima was that the question of the social responsibility of a journalist was posed with greater urgency than ever.”
    — Wilfred Burchett, letter to David Gourlay, 9 July 1980

    “It’s Julian Assange and WikiLeaks that have returned honour to journalism. Julian is a Truthteller and that’s what has upset those who continue what Goebbels called ‘The Big Lie’.”
    — John Pilger, interview on WBAI Radio NYC, 11 April 2017

    “WikiLeaks coined a new type of journalism: scientific journalism. We work with other media outlets to bring people the news, but also to prove it is true. Scientific journalism allows you to read a news story, then to click online to see the original document it is based on. That way you can judge for yourself: Is the story true? Did the journalist report it accurately?”
    — Julian Assange, article in The Australian, 8 December 2010

    “How WikiLeaks verifies its news stories
    “We assess all news stories and test their veracity. We send a submitted document through a very detailed examination a procedure. Is it real? What elements prove it is real? Who would have the motive to fake such a document and why?
    “We use traditional investigative journalism techniques as well as more modern technology-based methods. Typically we will do a forensic analysis of the document, determine the cost of forgery, means, motive, opportunity, the claims of the apparent authoring organisation, and answer a set of other detailed questions about the document.
    “We may also seek external verification of the document. For example, for our release of the Collateral Murder video, we sent a team of journalists to Iraq to interview the victims and observers of the helicopter attack. The team obtained copies of hospital records, death certificates, eye witness statements and other corroborating evidence supporting the truth of the story.
    “Our verification process does not mean we will never make a mistake, but so far our method has meant that WikiLeaks has correctly identified the veracity of every document it has published.
    “Publishing the original source material behind each of our stories is the way in which we show the public that our story is authentic. Readers don’t have to take our word for it; they can see for themselves.
    “In this way, we also support the work of other journalism organisations, for they can view and use the original documents freely as well. Other journalists may well see an angle or detail in the document that we were not aware of in the first instance. By making the documents freely available, we hope to expand analysis and comment by all the media.
    “Most of all, we want readers know the truth so they can make up their own minds.”
    — WikiLeaks, About, 7 May 2011

  13. rosemerry
    February 9, 2020 at 14:23

    Seldom can I say I am proud to be Australian, but these three men make me feel proud to have that connection. I am old enough to remember the disgraceful behaviour of the Australian government in denying Wilfred Burchett a passport and for vilifying him
    The USA wanted all mention of any human deaths to be kept from the public, and Burchett was the only one brave enough to go to Hiroshima and report the truth. His other experiences were of course showing that “enemies” could be human, which Australians were not supposed to believe.
    Another wonderful journalist (though not Australian) is Andre Vltchek who interviewed Burchett’s son who lives in Vietnam and spoke movingly of his father. Vltchek is still writing and making films all over the world.
    Julian Assange’s “unauthorised autobiography” is available and is worth reading. Available from the Book Depository.

  14. AC Arthur
    February 9, 2020 at 13:41

    A historical perspective of three great Australian journalists causes me a reflective thought and hopeful for a new era and a better future of a free press. The collective Five-Eyes and the governments they represent are designed to slowly kill the intrinsic fabric of public free expression. The attack is delivered by the greatest propaganda system humankind has ever faced along with an unprecedented spying on entire populations. That propaganda model (re:Edward Bernays) foisted on the greater public has refined its approach for 100 years. In short, our society is predicated on myths that ultimately emerge as lies. Once the big lies are assumed to be true, then governments reinforce the myth with policy, legislation, enforcement to obey, until the entire system is predicated on lies. Anyone who tells the truth to power is persecuted. The inference is our Freedom of expression scares the heck out of the powerful. Our free expression is that tool where each and everyone has agency. It is our free expression and demonstrable desire to defend ourselves and the free press that will help liberate us from pending tyranny. To liberate ourselves from this dystopia, we must sing all together a voice of dissent. Free J.A.

  15. February 9, 2020 at 11:55

    Free Assange and Manning and bring Snowden home and give him a hero’s welcome.

  16. Skip Scott
    February 9, 2020 at 08:16

    I would have to add Caitlin Johnstone to this list. Although she is not a “reporter”, as in “on the ground”, she has a very clear-eyed view of the world and the role of the MSM in supporting the “Intelligence” agencies and the global ruling elite. She is another Australian treasure.

    It is a shame that Australian citizens have not rebelled sufficiently to demand Julian’s return and protection by their government. They live under the same propaganda cloud as the rest of Empire’s vassals.

  17. Ant.
    February 9, 2020 at 05:59

    I’d add Caitlan Jones to that list., whose articles you have posted on this website.

  18. KiwiAntz
    February 8, 2020 at 22:33

    What’s shameful & repugnant is the deafening silence of the Australian Govt, to provide any diplomatic support or aid to these journalists, all of them Australian citizens, particularly Julian Assange regarding his imprisonment & torture at the hands of the English authorities in cohoots with & instigated by America! This cowardly attitude by Australia demonstrates in no uncertain terms, Australia’s slavish devotion as a lapdog Vassal, to America’s Geopolitical Criminal behaviour & it’s rogue non-adherence to either International Laws or the Geneva Convention which apparently supersedes support for their own Citizens human rights! Having shown the World their abject incompetence in dealing with Climate change & the deadly fires that have resulted, Australia continues to bury its head in the sand in silence showing the same pathetic attitude towards Julian Assange & other courageous Journalist’s that they showed in their response to the unprecedented Bush fires? Silence & incompetence is golden if your name is Scot Morrison & his cowardly Govt? Disgraceful!

    • Nerrilyn Diefenbach
      February 9, 2020 at 05:47

      Well said!

Comments are closed.