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.

Tweets by @jonsnowC4

22 reader comments

  1. margaret BrandrethJones says:

    Big HA! eh?

    At first, I thought you were going to allude to the theory put forward by membersof Bolton University staff (to me), that text takes on a life of its own and the continuum morphs very little from the orginal scriber.

    40 times in jail? you would think that he would take more care.

    7 death sentences.. too masochistic . Damacles , Damcles, Damacles?

    It is hurtful to know that a lifes’ work pursuing truth, was usurped by a literary liar…the similarity between professions in that respect enables me to deal with more confidence my own personal pursuit of the truth.

  2. adz says:

    It is a small and largely private victory because reporting conditions for those who were there and risked their lives to show the worlds goings on, know what it really takes.
    It makes me wonder how many other phoney reporters are out there right now.
    I know there is a lot of fake journalism, most of which is relayed back to us with full government consent. Just how many are there though? That’s both phoney governments and fake journalists by the way. I’ll leave it to our imaginations.
    adzmundo CND

  3. Saltaire Sam says:

    I’m reminded of the possibly apocryphal story of the sports reporter who turned up too late for an England Scotland match (the drink you know), asked another hack for a few details then filed a story untrammelled with the facts.

    The response from a reader was ‘how nice to at last read a report from someone who was at the same game as I was’

    1. margaret BrandrethJones says:

      Well those are words for you. Correpondents correspond ,but do the words correspond to fact and does the intention of honest reporting of facts necessitate physical presence to witness those facts or will a reliable witness suffice?
      It’s all in the game and I don’t even understand the rules.

      I suppose its all in the game

  4. adrian clarke says:

    As us bloggers frequently show .
    Facts are only what we want to know

    1. margaret BrandrethJones says:

      You should read Wittgenstein on facts.You will never think the same again.

  5. PaulAllen3000@mac.com says:

    Others have been suspicious too. See: http://www.richardwebster.net/johnryle.html

    I wonder if K ever responded to these criticisms when he was alive. I suspect that he did tread a different path to the regular western correspondents. But it makes his stories all the more difficult to verify – and clearly, he sometimes just got it wrong / relied on weak sources. An incredible writer, nonetheless.

  6. Jim Kennedy says:

    I had though it was well accepted that Kapuscinski embellished his reportage, in the manner of the other great travel writer Bruce Chatwin, but is Jon Snow saying he (Kapuscinski) wasn’t even there in the places he wrote about? That his work was done from an office somewhere in Warsaw? That would be very hard to take on board (the deceit of it, not Snow’s allegation, which I take as read).

    Is ‘Travels With Herodutus’ a work of pure fiction? Is ‘The Soccer War’ just based on research carried out from elsewhere other than Central America? This is all very disappointing.

    1. ulairi says:

      Kapuscinski was in the places he wrote about. He spent years in Africa and Latin America. And yes, he embelished or dramatized his reportages.

      Snow is relying on words taken out of context and changing their meaning. Maybe he wants to cut off a little bit of Kapuscinski’s fame for himself.

  7. Saltaire Sam says:

    I knew a travel writer once who researched and wrote his articles before he left so as not to spoil the trip

    1. margaret BrandrethJones says:

      I have seen similar inconsistencies between what really happened and incorrect anticipation That I presume is being ahead of the game..

  8. Tomasz Gwizdz says:

    Why You always blow your own trumpet John. You suspected ? It sound like a fake as well.

    1. margaret BrandrethJones says:

      Was that a transparent cue for some of the bloggers Tomasz

  9. KB says:

    With all due respect Jon, do you actually know what’s written in the biography? I assume you haven’t read it since it has yet to be translated into english. Domoslawski doesn’t imply that Kapuscinski’s works are simply fiction. He shows cases where Kapuscinski used fiction to the advantage of his message. The thing is Kapuscinski grew out of his role as a reporter a long time ago and by becoming a writer released himself of the constraints of his former role in order to better convey the essence of what he understood as the truth. His quote to prove the point: “There is something more valuable and more enduring than facts”. For instance Kapuscinski described how, before embarking on writing The Emperor, he thoroughly studied the language of baroque literature, finding it to be most appropriate to the way he understood the court of Haile Selassie and perhaps the greater issue of power. Take it or leave it, but many of his readers understood his position. The problem was that it wasn’t stated in an explicit way like a warning sign by the road. This is an issue. Perhaps to many it will disqualify his work as non-factual. Still, knowing this I would not write it off as untrue.

  10. ulairi says:

    OK, the idiocy of this post made me speachless. Artur Domoslawski, having written (and said) what he had, doesn’t mean what you imply here, nor does the article from Guardian.

    I suggest, Mr Snow, to wait for ‘Kapuscinski Non-fiction’ to be translated, read it and only then share your brilliant thoughts with the world…

  11. nobsang says:

    ‘shadow of the sun’.. contains truth- you can feel it…whether he was there or not he seems to have found a way to access truth, and that puts him in the realm of the great writers

  12. margaret BrandrethJones says:

    If too many tweets make a twit… what do too many blogs make ?

  13. KB says:

    Here’s an interview with the author of the biography, Artur Domoslawski, in english:

    http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/03/08/fact-fiction-and-kapuscinski

    It also refers to the post you’ve written above, Jon.

  14. Jacek Dzierwa says:

    I am at a loss reading the piece by Jon Snow. Was Mr. Kapuscinski suppposed to check in with Mr. Snow before going anywhere? Who does Mr. Snow think he is that every reporter had to be known to him in his travels? Does Mr. Snow understand the literary style of Mr. Kapuscinski? Most certainly not! I have a feeling Mr. Snow would like to be seen as the only authority on certain parts of the World and just can’t stomach the fact that there were others who reported better and in a much more interesting way than he usually does. Or maybe he is jealous about the commercial success that Mr. Kapuscinski achieved? I gues, all of the above.

  15. Marcin says:

    “I had never met Kapuscinski”, “nor had anyone I know…”. As if that was an argument… Mr. Snow should know the way Kapuscinski worked – he did not follow the main events, he preferred talking to “normal people” – citizens, soldiers etc. That’s one of the reasons why Mr. Snow never met Kapuscinski. Or I can think of dozen others, non of which is favourable for Mr. Snow. Until today I’ve never heard of Mr. Snow, but that’s a pretty nice way to become known – to slander someone famous.

  16. Matt C. says:

    And you, Mr Snow, are the author of which masterpieces again…?

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