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‘I don’t have an agenda, unless you call truth an agenda.’  So says James Norton as the titular character in the trailer for the new film Mr. Jones.  A line that might seem to connote dramatic hyperbole is actually admirable testament to the extraordinary career of Gareth Jones, a Welsh journalist whose life was tragically cut short in August 1935 on a reporting visit to China.

After serving as private secretary to former Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Jones became a reporter at the Western Mail in Cardiff.  A talented linguist, in early 1933 he was on hand in Germany to record Hitler’s rise to the chancellorship, and the story of Mr. Jones focuses on his travels in the Soviet Union in March 1933, where he discovered the extent of famine conditions in the Ukraine that resulted in an estimated death toll of between five and seven million.[1]

Western eyes had been opened to the Soviet Famine of 1932-33 by the reports of Malcolm Muggeridge that were published in the Manchester Guardian on 25, 27 and 28 March.  Jones himself returned to Berlin on 29 March and issued his own press release.  His depiction of life in the Ukraine was bleak: ‘Everywhere was the cry, “There is no bread; we are dying.”’[2]

Jones went further by attacking the complicity of the Soviet regime, recounting a train journey where he gave short shrift to the denials of a local Communist:  ‘I flung into the spittoon a crust of bread I had been eating from my own supply.  The peasant, my fellow-passenger, fished it out and ravenously ate it.  I threw orange peel into the spittoon.  The peasant again grabbed and devoured it.  The Communist subsided.’[3]

In making his case – he reported that the Soviet state had brought Russia ‘to the worst catastrophe since the famine of 1921’ – Jones refused to play the game that underpinned the work of Western journalists in Moscow.   Shockingly, however, this marked Jones out as a target for these same journalists.

Jones’s exposé occurred at the same time as the Metropolitan-Vickers trial, where six British engineers were arrested on inflated charges of espionage.  Eager for the story, Western journalists dared not jeopardise the favour of the Soviet regime.  Walter Duranty, played as a servile character in the film by Peter Sarsgaard, was English by birth and the doyenne of the press community as the Moscow correspondent for the New York Times, and he led efforts to discredit Jones.  His own report, ‘Russians Hungry But Not Starving’, shrugged off the scale of death and deprivation, claiming with semantic sophistry, ‘There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition’.[4]

The attacks on Jones were a combination of ideological apologia, journalistic self-interest, and unfortunate timing.  The Metropolitan-Vickers trial provided short-term leverage for the Soviets that was exploited by Konstantin Umansky, head of the Press Department of the Commissariat for Foreign Affairs.  At a celebration for Eugene Lyons, United Press correspondent in Moscow, a collective decision was taken over snacks and a ready supply of vodka to hang Jones out to dry.[5]

Jones’s revelations were somewhat dwarfed by this weight of denial.  He replied to Duranty directly in the New York Times on 13 May 1933, calling his fellow journalists ‘masters of euphemism and understatement’.[6]  But in this situation, Duranty’s seniority was a trump card; after all, he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in April 1932 for his Soviet coverage.  The citation commended his reports as ‘marked by scholarship, profundity, impartiality, sound judgement and exceptional clarity’.[7]

Mystery surrounded Jones’s death in China on the day before his thirtieth birthday, with some suggestions that the Soviet state was implicated.  This tragedy has been extended by the relative loss of Jones to posterity.  He may have featured in Muggeridge’s satire on ‘fellow travellers’ and Western press correspondents, Winter in Moscow, as Wilfred Pye – Jones’s report about the orange peel is replicated almost verbatim – but it is more likely that Muggeridge simply fleshed out Pye’s narrative with Jones’s experiences.

It is fitting that, some eighty-five years since his death, Mr. Jones presents a wider audience with the story of Gareth Jones.  In an age of ‘fake news’ and when we doubt (often with just cause) the press’ role as the Fourth Estate, we could do with a few more reminders of the bravery of journalists for whom truth is their only agenda.

Dr David Vessey is Teaching Associate in Modern History at the University of Sheffield. David’s research focuses on modern British political history, specifically the corresponding fortunes of the Labour and Liberal parties, and newspaper history in the twentieth century. He has recently finished a project on political engagement, the press and the suffragettes in Edwardian Britain, which will result in two journal articles in 2020. He is currently researching British press narratives of the Soviet Union in the Stalinist era. You can find David on Twitter @DavidCVessey.

Cover image: A memory plaque at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, erected in 2006 by Ukrainian organizations to commemorate Jones’s deeds. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gareth_Jones_3.jpg, [Accessed 27 January 2020].

[1] Stephen Oleskiw, The Agony of a Nation: The Great Man-Made Famine in Ukraine, 1932-1933 (London: The National Committee to Commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Artificial Famine in Ukraine 1932-1933, 1983), pp. 54-5.

[2] Manchester Guardian, 30 March 1933, p. 12.

[3] Ibid.

[4] S. J. Taylor, Stalin’s Apologist: Walter Duranty, the New York Times’s Man in Moscow (Oxford, 1990), p. 207.

[5] Marco Carynnyk, ‘Making the News Fit to Print: Walter Duranty, the New York Times and the Ukrainian Famine of 1933’ in Roman Serbyn and Bohdan Krawchenko (eds.), Famine in Ukraine, 1932-1933 (Edmonton, 1986), pp. 76-7.

[6] Taylor, Stalin’s Apologist, p. 208.

[7] Robert Conquest, The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivisation and the Terror-Famine (London, 1986), p. 320.

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