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Virus Myth Australia

This adjudication was originally at:
Australian Press Council Australian Press Council

Adjudication No. 1172 (Adjudicated July 2002; re-issued September 2002)

NOTE: After receipt of an appeal from The Sunday Age, the Council reconsidered this matter at its September 2002 meeting and decided by a narrow majority to retain the finding. However, the Council also decided to amend the adjudication in the light of some matters raised in the appeal.

The Press Council has upheld a complaint by Ian Burnet against The Sunday Age about an article outlining the role of his late father, Sir Macfarlane Burnet, as an adviser to the Chifley Government on biological warfare.

The front-page article was based on documents from the late 1940s and early 1950s that had been declassified by the National Archive and released to a Canberra historian.

The article appeared under the headline How Australia's greatest scientist planned to poison S-E Asia: the Macfarlane Burnet solution. It was accompanied by a large photograph of him, overlaid with a quote attributed to him that "consideration should be given to the offensive possibilities of B[iological] W[arfare] against the food supply of South East Asia".

Two 1947 documents in particular - minutes of a Defence Committee meeting, and a two-page 'Note on war from a biological angle' prepared by Sir Macfarlane - were used to support a claim that he had "secretly urged the government to develop biological weapons for use against Indonesia and other 'overpopulated' countries of South-East Asia". The newspaper also referred to the minutes from 1948 to 1951 of a chemical and biological warfare subcommittee, of which Sir Macfarlane was a member.

Mr Burnet complained that the archival material used in the story had been "progressively distorted with the clear intention of generating a scoop with catchy headlines that would demonise" his father.

The Sunday Age defended its coverage of the declassified papers, noting their public and historical interest. It denied choosing selectively from the material to 'demonise' Sir Macfarlane, insisting that he had suggested on several occasions that offensive use could be made of biological weapons, including a 1947 assertion that "the most effective counter-offensive to threatened invasion" would be by the use of biological and chemical means to destroy crops and to disseminate infectious diseases.

The Sunday Age proposed to Mr Burnet that he outline his views in a letter to the Editor. He felt, however, that this would not be enough, and that the paper should allow its readers to make their own judgment about his father by publishing in full the 'Note on war'. The Sunday Age rejected this proposal. The Council believes that Mr Burnet could have accepted the newspaper's offer and this would have provided some balance in the matter.

Much of Mr Burnet's complaint hinges on different possible readings of the 1947 Defence Committee minutes and Sir Macfarlane's 'Note'. "The record becomes very messy and incapable of any definitive interpretation", he admits in his complaint.

It is true that most of the observations attributed to Sir Macfarlane in the 1947 minutes addressed issues of defence against biological weapons that might be used to attack Australia, but largely to downplay the danger and possibility of effective defence. Much of the Note was devoted to an exposition of three 'biologically sound principles' whose observance by sovereign nations could, in his opinion, tackle the causes (and thus reduce the risk) of war.

The Sunday Age article hardly touched on either of these aspects of the source documents, choosing instead to emphasise the scientist's advice to the Government about ways of developing an offensive biological warfare capability. It also noted a 1948 opinion given by Sir Macfarlane that, if such weapons were developed, they should be "on the tropical offensive side rather than the defensive".

The Press Council believes that publication of the issue was in the public interest. In the documents Sir Macfarlane did deal directly with the question of offensive weapons, and the paper was justified in highlighting this. However, the article would have been better balanced if it had offered a more complete summary of his views.

In addition to this imbalance, the Council is concerned with the headline. Its reference that Sir Macfarlane "planned to poison S-E Asia" is misleading. The 'plans' referred to in the article are in fact recommendations of the subcommittee of which Sir Macfarlane was but one member. The rather sinister allusion to "the Macfarlane Burnet solution" exacerbated the unfairness.

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