How 1980s Poland changed the face of Europe

Tim Ewart

Former Royal Editor

Thirty-five years since he last reported from Poland, the first domino to fall in the gradual collapse of the Soviet Union, retired ITN Correspondent Tim Ewart returns for his final report for On Assignment.

Some stories now are impossible to tell. There are places where a sudden shift in the front line, or a wrong turn, can leave you exposed to people you very much do not want to meet.

Poland in the early eighties, on the other hand, was a dream assignment for the adventurous young reporter. The streets were alive with protest and the air was heavy with tear gas. The Zomo riot police would brandish batons and fire water cannon. The risk of arrest, for demonstrators and journalists alike, was ever-present. But it did not feel life threatening.

More than that. This was essentially a story of good guys and bad guys, of how the Solidarity trade union turned into a protest movement that simply would not be silenced by an unpopular, Soviet-backed communist regime. And the protestors welcomed us as their friends and watched our backs. They were heady days.

Poland has seen huge change over the last few decades.

My return to Poland 35 years on was, therefore, a sentimental journey. There were old faces to reminisce with and places, like the Gdansk shipyard where Solidarity was born, to stir memories of that extraordinary time.

Lech Walesa was then the firebrand Solidarity leader imprisoned under martial law. Now he's a portly former president of Poland, dismissing accusations that he was once a communist informer. The authorities tried to discredit him back in the old days, he told me, and now he claims the current government are at it again.

Tim Ewart with former Polish Prime Minister Lech Wałęsa. Credit: ITN

Adam Racewicz was a shipyard worker sacked for supporting Walesa's trade union. We filmed him and his young family in 1983 and tracked him down more than three decades later to show him the report he'd never seen.

Adam did not understand the words, but the pictures alone were enough to make him cry. The tears were brought on not by images of himself, but of striking workers massed at the shipyard gate. "We were fighting for our liberty," he said.

The images of that 1980s upheaval were recorded almost entirely by Polish camera crews. I worked with Slawomir Wrzosinski and his sound recordist Wojciech Witkowski, Slawek and Wojtek as everyone knew them. This reunion, inevitably, took place in a bar and over a glass of vodka we swapped stories of the good old days.

Reunited with Adam and Maria Racewicz. Credit: ITN

There were no mobile phones then, no internet nor any of the pack-in-a-bag gadgetry that gives broadcast media such independence now. The tapes we shot on were routinely changed and hidden, sometimes spirited away for us by demonstrators or sympathetic priests.

Some recordings were smuggled out of the country, but after all the subterfuge on the road most of our material was simply played out from the state-run television centre, with not a censor in sight. I suppose they were happy enough just to take the money.

I worked in many places in the years that followed and covered some momentous events. But nothing every quite matched Poland. "We witnessed history," said Wojtek as he downed another vodka. And so we did.

  • A version of this article appears in Broadcast Magazine, 17th May

  • The new series of On Assignment returns at 10.55pm on Wednesday, after ITV News at Ten