3 Mar 2010

I suspected Polish reporter was a fake

He reported Africa from the late 50s to the early 90s.

He reported from Central America and covered the fall of the Shah in 1979 and the ensuing Iranian Revolution.

For years the writings and reputation of the great Polish reporter Ryszard Kapuscinski have perplexed me.

So good was his writing that when he died in 2007 people mused as to why he had never won the Nobel Prize.

He claimed to have witnessed 27 revolutions and coups; to have been in jail 40 times and to have survived seven death sentences.

Not long ago I shared with my Channel 4 News colleague Jonathan Miller my suspicion that Kapuscinski had not been present at most of what he had reported.

He was shocked, and I thought a trifle disgusted, at my traducing of the great man.

Technically, Kapuscinski was employed by the Polish News Agency as their only foreign correspondent. That much appears to have been true.

But I told Miller that in my entire reporting life from 1973 onwards covering Africa, Central America and the wider Middle East, not only had I never met Kapuscinski, but that I had never met anyone else who had ever done so ‘on the road’ either.

In those days, there were so few reporters on the road that you almost invariably knew virtually everyone who was covering the same story.

I thought about the funeral of Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta; the overthrow of Idi Amin; the murder of El Salvador’s Archbishop Romero; yes, and the Iranian Revolution.

Just a handful of the many stories I reported at which Kapuscinski should have been present.

Over time I reasoned that I was wrong – that maybe because he was Eastern bloc, maybe he had stayed in Polish embassies and hung out with a different crew.

But then I thought most specifically about my time in Angola covering the guerrilla wars against South Africa -venturing in to meet Sam Njomo the leader of SWAPO fighting to liberate what now is Namibia.

I travelled with no one else but Eastern bloc reporters and crews, mainly Russians and East Germans, and intersecting with Cuban forces – but even then: no Kapuscinski.

Yesterday Miller dropped me an email. ‘Maybe you were right,’ he wrote, ‘check out the Guardian, page 22’. I did. “Poland’s Ace Reporter chronicled wars and revolutions. Fiction, says biographer” read the headline. Wow!

Artur Domoslawski, whilst praising Kapuscinski (whom Salman Rushdie describes as ‘worth a thousand whimpering fantasising scribblers’) as the author of ‘precious and wonderful books’, says ‘ultimately they belong to fiction’.

He details exactly why. Kapuscinski’s widow this year lost her courtroom battle to have the 600-page biography banned in Poland.

At one time Kapuscinski was voted the greatest journalist of the 20th century.

I’m sorry, in a way, that I never raised my misgivings in public. I guess his writings will remain iconic.

I doubt too that a single biography (three others never questioned his claims) will diminish his standing much. But for those of us who WERE there, it is a small if largely private, Pyrrhic victory.

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