Tabloid Journalism and Polish Emigration
The past 16 years in Poland have been ones of “massive”, “radical” and “dizzying” change we are often told and from the perspective of the larger cities it would be hard to disagree.
Yet, having first come to Warsaw in 1992 – and then made frequent visits from there on in, until I came to live here in 2001 – it seems to me to hold fewer surprises in store now than it did in those heady days when everything could be taken apart and put back together again in the bat of an eyelid. Then, the locals were both perplexed and fascinated that a foreigner had made the trip to their turbulent land, emerging from a grey, uninspiring period to one which promised everything.
These days being a Western foreigner in Warsaw means that novelty is in short supply. You blend in with the surroundings, your faltering Polish is accepted with barely a patient nod, where once a mere phrase would have provoked astonishment at your linguistic ability, and living and working here legally is water off a duck’s back.
But I recently got to look at Poland anew when I received a phone call asking me to meet a couple of journalists from a well-known British tabloid newspaper, who were over to do a story on the mass emigration from Poland to the UK.
An impromptu decision was made to head up to Bialystok because of a tip off that a town nearby ran a bus to the UK on a daily basis, but after a few calls, which led us to a Bialystok local called Tomek, the four of us found ourselves on the way to Czarna Bialastocka, because there, apparently, was a population that had almost been halved by emigration.
Around 20 kilometers from Bialystok, Czarna Bialostocka is a grim town full of identical five-story apartment blocks which look in desperate need of a facelift. Once a constant supplier of labour to a nearby farming machinery factory, these days it has little going for it. One of our gripes was that despite being on our feet for hours on end, there was no café or bar where we could go to take a break, and a trip to the toilet meant dashing behind a tree, a least until some of the friendlier locals invited us into their homes. So much for the ‘glamour’ of journalism.
The brief from the London desk was to gather ten to twenty of the locals for a group photograph, obtain family snapshots of those who had left for the UK and then interview them all.
It was an impossible task. Not only was the weather dreadful, with the drizzle matting our hair to our heads as we approached people in the street, but no-one wanted to talk to us. At the beginning we had approached the local priest, Father Andrzej Rynkowski - who turned out to be the star of the whole escapade - and he said that almost 40 percent of the 5,000-strong population had left for the UK. Yet, when we asked individuals if they had relatives in Britain almost all of them replied that they did not. It was true that lots of people had emigrated from Poland to England, they acknowledged, but in their case they only knew people who had gone to the USA or to Norway. If the priest was right – and we could hardly accuse the man of fantasising – then the town’s citizens were lying through their teeth.
The guys from London started to take extreme umbrage at this recalcitrance. They began to compare Poland as a whole unfavourably with the UK, where ordinary people would always be open to the press, they said.
Both myself and Tomek tried to explain to them, to little avail, that Polish people were proud and were also averse to people sticking their noses into their business. That had been a legacy of the Communist years and just because it was a bunch of Brits doing the prying these days did not mean they were going to pour their hearts out to strangers.
So, we returned to Father Rynkowski to ask him if he could influence his flock. He shook his head and told us that the parishioners were a stubborn lot and that he doubted whether they would open up. But after some truly tabloid pressing – and that has to be seen to be believed – he agreed to adorn gown and dog-collar and wander into the nearest estate as an advocate of the British tabloid press.
It worked a treat. Soon a group of ten had gathered to be pictured and interviewed. But then came a snag. In order for the story to be accepted by London, each interviewee had to give up a snapshot of their dearly-departed emigrant to go alongside the group picture, and one woman who had no problem with most of the exercise, point blank refused to give us a photo of her recently-divorced husband, currently in the UK with another woman.
And so we harangued and she said no. Then we pestered and she shook her head. We cajoled and she got her ex-husband on the phone from London, and he ranted his refusal in the bluntest manner. So we left. But we went back again and asked once more. Her temper was short and she called the ex-husband another time, and he gave us a definitive flea in the ear. But still it went on until there was simply nothing left to say. London did not have a story and the guys would have to start all over again.
But Father Rynkowski once more came to the rescue and agreed to announce at mass on Sunday that it would be nice if people could give the British journalists the time of day, which they duly did. The story got written and for a tabloid piece it is actually quite insightful.
But the experience, which for me was full of stomach-churning dilemmas, suggested that, despite all, the cultural gap between Eastern Europe and the West has not narrowed as significantly as many might wish, and that that may not be a bad thing. The people of Czarna Bialostocka put up a brave fight against intrusion into their affairs, which some might call obstinate and others bloody-minded, but having been on the receiving end, and deserving it totally, I have to say that my eyebrows were once more raised at the fortitude of the Polish people, and long may that continue.