Who's Afraid of Mr Jones? From Ukraine Holodomor to Media Manipulation & Disinformation
March 29th, 2022

"A propaganda model suggests that the “societal purpose” of the media is to teach and defend the economic, social, and political agenda of privileged groups that dominate the domestic society and the state. The media serve this purpose in many ways: through a selection of topics, distribution of concerns, framing of issues, filtering of information, emphasis and tone, and keeping debate within the bounds of acceptable premises."

Manufacturing Consent by Edward S. Herman, Noam Chomsky

​If you ask Ukrainians, who is the most memorable and influential British in their history, Gareth Jones’ name is undoubtedly on the record.

Ukraine’s capital city has renamed a street “Gareth Jones Lane” in honour of him as the first foreign correspondent who dared to uncover Stalin’s Ukraine Holodomor (man-made famine) of 1932-1933. ​The hypotheses from Nigel Colley, researcher and grandnephew of Gareth Jones, stated that George Orwell’s renowned fable Animal Farm was inspired by Jones’ works. Orwell named the owner of Manor Farm Mr Jones and alluded to the famine and the cover-up in his novella.

Who’s Gareth Jones?

The historical thriller film Mr Jones opened the door of the rabbit hole for me. It tells the incredible story of Jones risking his career and life to reveal the truth when Western reports turn their blind eyes to Stalin’s notorious totalitarian crime in the twenties century.

Gareth Jones was a young and intelligent welsh journalist with a righteous ardour to seek the truth. He used to be a personal advisor to former prime minister David Lloyd George for his political journalism background and language talents (fluent in Germany and Russia).

Before he entered the Soviet Union in 1933, he had just flown with Adolf Hitler and conducted the interview foreseeing the rise of the Nazi Party. “The Europe of 1933 has seen the birth of the Hitler dictatorship in Germany. What will it see in the Soviet Union?” wrote him.

He sneaked into Soviet Ukraine, where he kept diaries of his first-hand witnesses to the widespread starvation, unattended death and extremely crucial cannibalism.

“I walked along through villages and twelve collective farms. Everywhere was the cry, ‘There is no bread. We are dying’. This cry came from every part of Russia, from the Volga, Siberia, White Russia, the North Caucasus, and Central Asia. I tramped through the black earth region because that was once the richest farmland in Russia and because the correspondents had been forbidden to go there to see for themselves what is happening.”

“In the train a Communist denied to me that there was a famine. I flung a crust of bread which I had been eating from my own supply into a spittoon. A peasant fellow-passenger fished it out and ravenously ate it. I threw an orange peel into the spittoon and the peasant again grabbed it and devoured it. The Communist subsided. I stayed overnight in a village where there used to be two hundred oxen and where there now are six. The peasants were eating the cattle fodder and had only a month’s supply left. They told me that many had already died of hunger. Two soldiers came to arrest a thief. They warned me against travel by night, as there were too many ‘starving’ desperate men.”

- Extract of Jones’ reporting from Soviet Ukraine

​Jones was utterly shocked by the reality because it was the opposite of what his fellow western correspondents reported. He spent two months undercover investigating the truth. And called a press conference in Berlin to reveal his findings: Stalin’s agricultural collectivization campaign forced millions of peasants onto collective farms and attacked the Ukrainian language and culture to form the USSR’s national identity.

However, Jones’ reports were dismissed by his peers, who knew better on judging the situation and deliberately concocted fake news for the interest groups.

Jones vs Duranty

The New York Times reporter Walter Duranty, who won the Pulitzer Prize for reporting the Soviet Five Year Plan glorifying this new regime, criticized Jones in New York Times by accusing him of jumping to conclusions based on limited facts. “Conditions are bad but there is no famine,” wrote Duranty in 1933.

Duranty also echoed Soviet propaganda by acknowledging “food shortages” due to “the novelty and mismanagement of collective farming” and shared his thoughts on the situation in Ukraine as “you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs” to cover up the man-made mass murder of millions.

Apart from Duranty, public figures such as George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells also publicly denied the famine in Ukraine. During a visit to Ukraine in 1933, former French Prime Minister Édouard Herriot said that Soviet Ukraine was “like a garden in full bloom”. Gareth Jones lost all his standing and reputation for revealing the Ukraine Holodomor that contradicted his Western peers’ testimonials and reportings.

In 1935, one day before his thirtieth birthday, Jones was kidnapped and murdered while investigating in Japanese-occupied Mongolia. A suspicion has examined the connection between his death and Soviet NKVD, as revenge for his reporting damaged the reputation of the Soviet regime.

While Jones suffered the tragic consequences of revealing the truth and was shot dead in a foreign country, Duranty, on the contrary, was greeted by ministers and governors at a dinner party in a grand hotel to celebrate the establishment of relations between the United States and the USSR. ​The toastmaster on the night introduced Duranty as “one of the great foreign correspondents of modern times, serving a great newspaper of this city”. Sally J. Taylor, the author of Stalin’s Apologist: Walter Duranty, also noted: “he was arguably the best-known foreign correspondent in the world.

"That part of the world is a cauldron of conflicting intrigue and one or other interests concerned probably knew that Mr Gareth Jones knew too much of what was going on...  He had a passion for finding out what was happening in foreign lands wherever there was trouble, and in pursuit of his investigations he shrank from no risk...  I had always been afraid that he would take one risk too many.  Nothing escaped his observation, and he allowed no obstacle to turn from his course when he thought that there was some fact, which he could obtain.  He had the almost unfailing knack of getting at things that mattered."

- London Evening Standard, quoting former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, 26th August 1935.

​Who’s Afraid of Mr Jones?

Despite the Holodomor being officially denied by the Kremlin for more than half a century, Ukrainians are still fighting for its recognition and understanding of this dark chapter. In recent years, the Ukrainian government opened National Holodomor Memorial in Kyiv and many Holodomor monuments worldwide to commemorate the estimated 3.3 to 5 million deaths during this tragic event.

Looking at our society, Gareth Jones’s story and the Holodomor continually resonated with us far beyond time and space. The mainstream media in both east and west haven’t given up their agenda to serve political and economic interests, control public narrative, restrict information flow, and contribute to extreme speeches and behaviours.

In our time where fake news is all over the media landscape, distorting our understanding of reality, it has never been more important to study historic events and recognise the deadly consequences of media manipulation and disinformation. Thanks to journalists like Gareth Jones, their efforts and bravery serve as a moral compass for us to explore truth in the current chaotic situation.

I started my career in media and was taught to follow three rules to be a good journalist: passionate about journalism, fear no hardship and authority and be curious and courageous throughout my life. I regarded Oriana Fallaci and Marie Colvin as my role models for their work ethics and fighter mentality. I also admire writers like Hemingway and Orwell, who took responsibility, threw themselves into the frontline and wrote the truth in war.

Although I lost many battles against censorship, I never surrendered and never ceased the fire to fight for human rights in freedom of expression. The good news is with the development of technology, I have more tools to seek the truth and protect myself with pseudonymity and decentralisation.

Balaji Srinivasan shares his insights on why the future lies in trusting distributed “cryptographic truth” rather than the values of centralised news organisations. More and more people join the journey in web3 to proactively challenge the mainstream narrative and focus on building sovereignty and agency to navigate complexity.​The truth may arrive late, but it never will be absent. Gareth Jones’ name may not have been recognised in his time, but it never will be forgotten.

P.S. I wrote a novella after watching Mr Jones in 2020, dedicated Chapter Six to media, and mentioned Jones & Duranty. Also, I chose June 8 as the date to publish my novella to pay tribute to George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, which was released on the same date in 1949.

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