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Number 1 Shimbun

How a Court Kept a Wizard of Oz Behind His Curtain

How a Court Kept a Wizard of Oz Behind His Curtain

By Gregory Clark

Ever heard of the Streisand effect? Yes, the reference is to the Streisand. But the “effect” is about media freedom, not music.

According to Wikipedia it is “the phenomenon whereby an attempt to hide, remove or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely, usually facilitated by the Internet.”

Barbra Streisand had filed a US$50 million lawsuit and a demand for non-publication against a photographer whose 2003 photo of her enormous, cliff-hanging Malibu estate had been used to publicize California coastal erosion. The case was dismissed, with Streisand ordered to pay the photographer’s legal fees of over US$150,000.

Before the case, the photo had been downloaded only four times. In the month after she filed, it was downloaded more than 420,000 times. Good luck for the photographer.

But not much luck for us who rely on the pen rather than the camera. Injunctions against publication of major stories are a never-ending threat. The written story will lose value rapidly in the time needed to fight an injunction. Worse happens if the injunction permits publication of a false, checkbook version of the story and the true story never sees daylight.

I mention this because it relates closely to my unsuccessful attempt back in the seventies to publish the true story of a notorious Australian prankster, Anglican cleric and promoter of progressive causes, Francis James. The affair still has implications for press freedom.

James had gained fame thanks to a visit to a remote area of China (Xinjiang) with a delegation of bishops at a time (1956) when few got into China. Early in 1969, at the height of the Cultural Revolution madness, he wanted to repeat the feat and gain more fame. He approached me in Canberra for help in getting a visa so he could smuggle himself in from a China-bordering country. I told him he was insane.

But, sure enough, a month later he showed up in London with an incredible story of how hidden contacts from his 1956 visit had arranged for him to return secretly to Xinjiang. They had then taken him to visit the top-secret Chinese nuclear research center at Lop Nor (photos provided) where he claimed to have interviewed top scientists. From there, he said, Cossack horsemen smuggled him across the Russian border, en route to Moscow for eye-repair and then to London.

Murray Sayle, who was to become a well-remembered FCCJ member, at the time was UK Sunday Times news editor. He bought the story. Splashed across three pages together with the photos, it was a global sensation – until Beijing denied a visit had taken place, the CIA said the photos came from a school textbook and the pugnacious editor of Hong Kong's Far Eastern Economic Review, Derek Davies, wrote that on the day James said he entered China he was listed on Pan Am flight 001 headed for New Delhi and was seen later in Kabul.

The James reputation collapsed overnight. But he continued to insist his story was true, and vowed to prove it. He had friends in high Chinese places, he said.

Soon after we heard he had been seen being dragged out of a Guangzhou hotel by Chinese goons after flamboyantly insisting to anyone who would listen that he had arrived on a false passport, carrying gold bars and secret documents in his suitcase. Repeated diplomatic enquiries in Beijing produced no answer. Later the Chinese claimed he had been arrested as a spy.

Was James, a well-known opponent of rightwing causes, a spy? Impossible, was the popular reaction. Opposition Labor Party leader Gough Whitlam, supported by the media and in particular by the main Melbourne paper, The Age, which was then a self-proclaimed defender of press openness, began a campaign demanding his release.

Finally in 1973, shortly after Whitlam became prime minister, we were told James was about to be released into Hong Kong but would not be available to the media. As Tokyo correspondent for The Australian I was sent to Hong Kong to get a story, any story. This I did simply by walking into the hospital where he was being debriefed in seclusion and asking to see him. It was a major scoop, with James claiming the Chinese had arrested and brutally interrogated him for years over his original 1956 Lop Nor story.

But that, unfortunately, was not the end of the story. He had also begged me bring Derek Davies to the hospital so he could explain the PanAm flight 001 departure event. He said it was true he had not gone directly into China; rather, he had gone via Afghanistan. He had gone to rescue a daughter, Elena, whom he had fathered with a Chinese interpreter nun during his 1956 visit to Xinjiang. His friends there had told him of the danger to Elena from Cultural Revolution fanatics and had arranged to meet him in the remote Wakan Corridor, a long strip of territory bordering China, tacked on to north-east Afghanistan by British colonialists to prevent czarist Russia’s southward expansion. There, he said, they had camels waiting to whisk him and Elena across the Russian border to a school in Moscow, with a Lop Nor tour en route.

Meanwhile he was busy selling to The Age the rights to a story of brutal torture and imprisonment, a story complete with more Lop Nor revelations – but with no mention of the mythical Elena. And meanwhile The Australian had announced on its front page, without consulting me, that I would begin a four part series to give more details of the James imprisonment, by then a major news story. But before I could even put pen to paper The Age applied for an injunction forbidding me to produce any story whatsoever, claiming it had the rights to the four-year detention story, which it would run in a 20-part series. The general manager of The Australian, John Menadue (later ambassador to Japan), refused to fight the injunction. The Age went ahead with its series, which gradually petered out as the unreality became obvious.

For me personally it was an ugly blow. In Australia I was left with the image of having tried to prevent the long-suffering James and his family from gaining their well-deserved reward. My relationship with Whitlam was damaged. But the real tragedy was that I had finally worked out the real story, which, if published, not only would have pulled all the pieces together but also would have done something to ease the anti-China resentments and tensions caused by James' prolonged detention.

The real story was as follows: Publicly “defrocked” by the Davies exposure, James was determined to make a comeback. How? Get himself into the then annual Canton (Guangzhou) trade fair, invite arrest by behaving outrageously, but then get himself expelled after a few days when the Chinese realized he was just a prankster. Once out of China he could claim the arrest proved he really was a person of note to Beijing, and maybe get some money to write more stories.

But the Chinese did not see it as a prank. They took him seriously. The planned few days in Chinese jail ended up lasting almost four years. And thanks to the injunction system, and blatant checkbook journalism by the supposedly high-minded Age, the true story – a story of genuine interest and importance – was killed. James was reported later to have claimed, “My life is secret. [Nobody] will ever succeed in writing an article about the real James.”

He was almost right.

(Gregory Clark is a Chinese speaking former Australian diplomat,
university staffer and longtime member of the FCCJ. As a correspondent based in Tokyo, in 1971 he organised an Australian team to join in the pingpong diplomacy over Canberra’s opposition. He also speaks Russian and Japanese and grows kiwi fruit in the Boso peninsula.)

Published in: March 2018

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