A party on 13 December

Nik Gowing remembers how his career as a TV foreign correspondent began with the rise of Solidarity and martial law in 1981

Nik Gowing, Wojciech Przybylski
13 December 2016

In 1987 you published a novel The Wire about Poland under martial law. It suggested a Soviet plot to use an apparent Solidarity “activist” – a “wire” – to murder General Jaruzelski for failing to meet Moscow’s expectation for a brutal crushing of Solidarity. That’s a bold piece of political fiction.

I wrote The Wire in 1983-4, when martial law was still there. Poland was very much a part of the deep communist Eastern Europe. I wrote it as a device to capture in print and for wide appreciation what was happening in 1981. It is not so much about Jaruzelski and the (Russian) disillusionment with him. It was more to reveal that you could never be sure within Solidarność who you were talking to. I had some bad times with Służba Bezpieczeństwa (SB; Polish Security Service under Communism). They tried to compromise me, recruit me, and I resisted all the time. But it came clear to me that there were people in Solidarność who were not as loyal to the movement as they might have been. They were informers or SB agents – known as a Wire.

I put this idea, this atmosphere into a novel because at the time I could not get clear facts. It was too early for that – no one would talk openly about it. I could not quote people (for a factual history). It was my sense having worked reporting Solidarność and watching them operating for 16 months that there was a good chance they were being led into a trap by people inside, with the “wires”, as they were called.

No one talks to me about it now/ But after what happened with the Round Table negotiations and other political developments I used to go back there. And people said: “I think you were closer to the truth than even you realized”.

Is it true? I don’t know, I invented it. But to reflect the mood: this idea that Solidarity was just millions of disillusioned workers and that SB and all the dirty tricks of communism were suddenly forgotten – forget it. It was a bad and complex time and we need to remember that.

So I had to have a plot. And it was about who Jaruzelski was really working for. Now Jaruzelski is dead, most of those people are dead, and I have not checked it in the archives. But at the time Marshal Kulikov [commander of the Warsaw Pact forces] was really active. They;[he and Jaruzelski] met in Terespol. It was uncertain whether Jaruzelski was a patriot, a Pole acting to prevent something much worse than martial law, or was he just a Soviet operative – you know the questions better than me.

Yes, it is still there.

I read bits of The Wire recently. I was proud. I thought it is pretty good, because it reflected really well the evidence, atmosphere and speculations, and what I thought at the time.

You received a BAFTA award – a British Oscar – for covering Solidarity. You then became a foreign affairs specialist for ITN, and then a main presenter for the BBC. But your career starts with coverage of Solidarność in 1980?.

I joined ITN as a young correspondent in 1978. I spent some time in Rome in 1979. Poland was a classic case of a young, hungry journalist seeing an opportunity when the shipyard was taken over in August 1980. You should remember that it was a time of telex machines, film and bad telephone connections. To get material transmitted from a place like Poland – which was a communist country – we had to rely on the monopoly of television coverage of TVP, public Polish TV, as well as the state news agency PAP plus INTERPRESS. There was never the idea that people would turn on their mobile phones at Stocznia in Gdańsk and start filming everything that was happening as would happen today. And of course both TVP and PAP did cover it. But in a very politically correct way. It was really difficult getting information from there – from the strike and the talks that went on and on through August. My colleagues in Reuters and other news agencies did a fantastic job finding way to the Heveliusz Hotel nearby to file a copy, always at risk of being raided by the SB.

How did I get t Poland? I managed to get a tourist visa. I flew in from Stockholm on a virtually empty SAS plane with a Swedish film cameraman and a soundman. We didn’t make any recognition that we knew each other when we flew to Warsaw. The Swedes didn’t have to get visas and I did. It was only for seven days, and I was clearly violating the tourist visa.

When we finally arrived at Gdańsk there were strikes breaking out in other parts of the country. Sowe went to several other places, eg. Lublin and Łódź. We were pretty exhausted, driving trying to escape from the police and so on. We were picked up and arrested in Łódź. We so tired. We were sleeping in the car, they probably had been tracking us. I was kicked out of Poland. But I managed to get another visa very quickly and returned to Gdansk.

I ended up in the shipyard. There are pictures of me close to the gate when Walesa is climbing the gate to speak to shipyard workers. It was riveting and nervewracking to be inside the shipyard. The level of organization was so high that it almost seemed like communist party meetings, including even the need for accreditations. Within the communist system people knew how to organize things – at least in the communist way – even when they were running a shipyard strike.

In those days much of what we filmed could not get out. We were still using film, not video. That meant the celluloid needed to be developed. This is important to remember because other stuff – the first generation of video coverage – could be sent to the West through German television who had offices in Warsaw. So quite often what I had to do was to get back to the Heweliusz Hotel. Colleagues in the ITN newsroom in London would have to phone me and tell me what the picture showed. I phoned them the voice track which they then put together in London. So every single bit of video, every single bit of coverage was hard won. And that went on until September.

I still remember than when the memorial of the strike and the shootings was erected – an enormous steel tower – in December of 1980 – it was the first time we actually used video cameras. But then it changed quickly, within months – during the second Solidarity, Solidarność Odnowa, first satellite connections were used. TVP lost its monopoly for coverage then.

And after the coverage of Gdańsk…

There was no after. Gdańsk never really stopped. There was always a crisis going on there. But we moved on to cover other cities and the coal mines as well, But back then getting the information was really hard. The only way to get it right was through printed underground statements, and then to be there in person. No one really had a clear picture of what was happening, even the best informed diplomats in the American Embassy or the British Club. The digital connectivity we take for granted on the internet now did not exist in any form.

Tell me about the night you had a party in Warsaw on December 12th 1981.

It was to celebrate the fact that finally I got accreditation for as long as a couple of months. Frankly, getting it from the MSZ cost me a lot of bottles of whiskey and brandy, plus other favours like car parts from the West, to persuade people na lewo (illegal), under the table, This included, and I can say now because he is dead now, the Polish ambassador in London, Stefan Staniszewski. I had to use every trick in the book to get that accreditation.

So what happened on the night 12-13 December was a moment of relief that finally I was officially allowed to be there. We were having a party on Szpitalna 6, on the 6th floor. And by Polish standards it was a good party. There was a lot of whiskey, a lot of vodka, and everything was going fine until about 22:30. That is when people started to come by warning that telex machines and telephone lines were cut.

There were reports of military movements and ZOMO movements. People started leaving, many of them immediately went underground from our party. I went back to the Victoria hotel where I had been living for months. I told my foreign editor who was visiting at the time: “Look, the reason for us being here is just happening. I think that a coup is taking place. I need to find my crew because the phones aren’t working now, so I will drive around the town.”

So you knew that the martial law was declared…

No, although the security clamp down had started, it was declared at six o’clock the morning next day when Jaruzelski made the announcement on a frequently repeated TV appearance. So anyway, when I asked for his help, my foreign editor looked at me and said: “I’m rather tired, could it wait until tomorrow morning, please?”.

So I drove around in the light snow. I found my cameraman that evening, who was very drunk from our office party. I told his wife to sober him up, get food for seven days and I’ll be back to pick him up. It was the same for my soundman and the taxi driver, and several other people. They were drunk and scared at that stage.

We managed to get the camera before the police raided our office. We drove around trying to get the material. We could see BMPs in the street corners. We crawled around the city in the light snow getting pictures here, pictures at night with very limited street lighting – you could barely see anything. And we managed to hide the video cassette when we were picked by a police roadblock on the way to Okęcie and kept in cells until noon next day. So we didn’t see much of what was happening that morning.

When I got back to the office. My foreign editor was sitting there cold and shivering. Because of a heavy snow fall in London his checked baggage had not arrived. He said: “I wondered what has happened to you?” I said: “Yes: the reason is martial law, that’s what’s happened. That’s why we’re here”.

I then constructed a video report using what we managed to keep back from the police. We assembled the report, which lasted around six or seven minutes, almost in silence in the editing machines. We then made several copies. We took apart the tape, the cassette. We took the bobbin out and went down to Warszawa Gdańska Station where we persuaded someone who was going to Vienna and another one going to Świnoujście to lash the bobbin with the report to their legs and smuggle them to the West. We had no idea which one might get through.

I was told that the person who took the story to Berlin was so frightened by the East German guards that he put the reel behind the water system in the toilet. So so there was someone going up and down the Zoo Station [in West Berlin] saying: ITN, ITN, ITN. But no one responded. The train, with the reel on it, ended up in Paris where our correspondent had to go to one of the train storage depots to find the tape in a carriage toilet.

Those who nowadays understand journalism very well still don’t grasp what it used to be, how we had to fight for a story using all the cunning with the police, using diplomacy. Also fighting quite physically with material and uncomfortable tools, to get it on air. There were no mobile phones with unlimited bandwidth and instant uploads!

So is news reporting and coverage of foreign affairs is therefore changing now or making different kind of impact these day?

Oh yes, I’ve written a lot about this during my time at Harvard. There is new transparency which means that everything is visible, everything has to be assumed to be visible. It’s very different.

But it’s also creating uncertainty about the events due to multiple, conflicting coverages.

You have a proliferation of material. This means that no longer reporters rely on the eyes of the one correspondent standing at the corner. Quite often you get feedback from Facebook and other social media. Your reporting will be questioned by people on the ground who see it differently than you. They say and report on their smartphone:: no, that’s not what’s happening here. So it is now much more difficult. You are now much more accountable, there isn’t a monopoly of view for one correspondent like me, which used to be the thing in the past. When you were a correspondent in Poland what you said was what happened. And there wasn’t a proliferation of sources. Now there is – which is fantastic for public information. But it’s much more difficult for journalism.

So what happens to journalism these days because it does not seem to go into a very good direction.

I think there is still an enormous value for curated journalism and for the value added from reporting. The problem is the economics of it all. If you are a newspaper or a television organization, you need to have revenue to pay for valued-added journalism. And revenue requires people who want to watch, who want to read what you are doing. The Guardian in London, for example, is a fine newspaper, but it is hemorrhaging money. Its journalism is kept afloat in London because it has significant revenue from the car selling organization called Autotrader. So the business model is very different. But there is still a role for good journalism, especially in the world of post-truth information and fake facts when people make their minds based on what they read, whether it’s true or not.

The problem is that the next generation often makes up their minds based on an assertion, a claim, a rumour. That’s what I don’t like about Twitter. Twitter is a kind of digital gossip all the time and that’s why can be dangerously unreliable for journalism. It’s good for tip. It’s good to give you a tip of what’s going on which I don’t deny at all. But you need to be so careful about how you use it. As you know, some governments are using Twitter deliberately to distort the way the events are viewed – particularly the Russians and the Chinese.

Back to the stories from Poland: don’t you think it was the same game at the time of Solidarity, that the government tried to distort information?

Of course, and particularly during martial law. They had full control over information and all telex and phone lines both within and out of the country. Or they thought they did. I still remember Major Gornicki. He was a former PAP correspondent in Washington. A terrible man with terrible cigarette-stained teeth, sitting and smoking, a real weasel of a man. And then, of course Jerzy Urban, who was very smart, very cunning, very clever, and havinf represented the martial law authorities he then went on make a lot of money for being smart, and clever, and cunning. I don’t think either had much credibility. Urban also smiled and smirked as if to say : “you are dumb if you believe me!”. We would go to press conferences, of course. We had to technically file everything through the censor. But by 1982 we already had our own sources of information and routes to send information out of the country, even if it took a couple of days to get there. We played cat and mouse with the SB all the time!.

Among the foreign correspondent we formed an unofficial network. And the Solidarity underground network was pretty good, even if infiltrated. But I don’t think the SB really infiltrated it in the way and on the scale it probably would now. Like the Chekists – the KGB – who by any standards are doing a brilliant work subverting Western governments now, using disinformation, misinformation. Look what they do with Russia Today and Sputnik – brilliant work they would never be able to do during the early 80s in Poland.

Our problem was that we couldn’t find enough of what was happening all around the country. And remember, in order to get information we had to find a telephone in a hotel, occasionally a private telephone and certainly during martial law everything was controlled. From Gdansk you would have to go all the way to the big hotel in Sopot, pay someone in dollars so they allow you to sit by the telex machine – and many people wouldn’t even know what a telex machine is. Of course, then you had the church network as well. And the church had its own agenda. Communication was a really difficult problem. That protected us in many ways. But it also made it very difficult to discover what was really happening. It also brought the correspondents together as we needed to rely on each other.

To reinforce how this was a pioneering time in television coverage. I started in 1980, and yes, it [Poland] helped make my career. But that’s what journalism is about. It’s about seeing an opportunity and running with it. In some ways I’m surprised I’m still alive, for a number of reasons, like dangerous car journeys to and from Gdańsk or Lublin or Kielce or Katowice, often on ice and snow and in miserable conditions at four o’clock in the morning, sleeping in the back.

Secondly, because of the wear and tear on the body, working all hours and being really stressed all the time, trying to avoid and play games with the SB, and interfere with the government propaganda people. It was a year on constant alert. And you didn’t get much sleep because you weren’t sure what was going to happen next. Also because on a handful of occasion I drank too much vodka and too much whiskey, I had never smoked but being in a room or car with chain smoking Poles, passive smoking could kill you.

But I am still alive. And I am not saying it jokingly because most of the people I worked with are dead now. Too much kabanos, too much whiskey, too much fatty food, and two or three people had terrible car accidents as well. So surviving it was indeed quite an achievement in its own way.

I used to be really on edge going through Okęcie Airport. I could often be strip-searched, as a way of them reminding me who was in charge. Also, I was the banker for the operation so I would come in to the airport, when I had been back in London, with thousands of dollars to pay the Poles who worked for me. After the Swedish crew. intermittently we managed to get some British cameramen and crew. But it became increasingly difficult. So I said to London: What’s the point in having an English crew, especially if they don’t speak Polish. We should have a Polish crew. After all Łódź Film School produced enormous numbers of very talented people: great people in the media business and I persuaded them to join me – for good times and bad. So we and many other news agencies became sort of an employer of the Polish film industry at the time. So when Wajda died it was a really sad moment for me! He symbolized the people I loved and am grateful to in the Polish TV and film business. His films about Poland are the brilliant legacy of all we went through.

But now look at the new Poland 35 years on. What is the status of the democracy that Solidarność set out to achieve in order to replace communism?

Interviewed by Wojciech Przybylski

This interview was recorded at GLOBSEC Tatra Summit 2016

Nik Gowing was a main news presenter for the BBC’s international 24-hour news channel BBC World News 1996-2014. He presented The Hub with Nik Gowing, BBC World Debates, Dateline London, plus location coverage of major global stories. For 18 years he worked at ITN where he was bureau chief in Rome and Warsaw, and Diplomatic Editor for Channel Four News (1988-1996).

His most recent peer-reviewed study is Skyful of Lies and Black Swans: the New Tyranny of Shifting Information Power in Crises. It was written as a Visiting Fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University and peer reviewed by Professor Sir Hew Strachan. Published in May 2009, it has made a significant impact worldwide because of its uncomfortable challenge to conventional assumptions of the nature of power in major, unexpected crises.

Transcribed by Borys Jastrzębski