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Gareth Jones - the Welsh journalist who changed the world

Gareth Jones was destined for a great career in journalism Credit: The estate of Margaret Colley

It's a singularly blurry photo - you could almost overlook the figure in the foreground at first glance - but the fuzzy image shows how close Gareth Jones once got to the twentieth century's most infamous dictator.

The year was 1933. The location, Frankfurt. Jones, by then a journalist with the Western Mail, had travelled to the city to watch the newly appointed Chancellor Adolf Hitler hold a rally.

He later recounted the journey in an article for the paper, describing the flight in the "Richthofen" plane, and the Fuhrer's "firm" handshake and "emotionless" eyes, writing: "If this aeroplane should crash, then the whole history of Europe would be changed."

It wasn’t the only time that he Welshman – described by his former boss Lloyd George as having ”an unfailing knack for getting at things that mattered” – found himself at the centre of a major story.

Born in Barry, Jones was educated at Aberystwyth University and then Cambridge, where he excelled at languages. He later served as a foreign advisor for David Lloyd George before becoming a journalist.

Gareth Jones pictured with Hitler - Frankfurt, 1933 Credit: Sefton Delmer archive

A month after his encounter with the Führer, Jones heard reports of a terrible famine gripping the Soviet Union, caused, it was said, by the policies of Stalin's government. The reporter travelled to Moscow and took a train to Kharkiv, then capital of Ukraine.

Jones spent three days walking through the region, sleeping at the home of the head of a collective farm and, on another night, at a peasant’s house.

A fluent Russian-speaker, he interviewed villagers everywhere he went. Some told him about how they'd been reduced to eating cattle-fodder and had only a month's supply left.

The reporter also described how - when travelling with a communist party member who denied the stories about starvation - he (Jones) threw a piece of bread 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."

"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, Central Asia... I stayed overnight in a village where there used to be 200 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.

– Gareth Jones
Jones' account of the famine in the USSR made headlines around the world Credit: The estate of Margaret Colley

After returning to Berlin, Jones gave a press conference where he revealed his findings. But his first-hand account was met with scepticism by the journalistic establishment.

Walter Duranty, the New York Times foreign correspondent, branded Jones' story "a big scare story", claiming that that had "been no actual deaths from starvation". Jones issued a rebuttal in the Financial Times, writing that Russian censorship had turned more seasoned foreign journalists into "masters of euphemism and understatement." Unsurprisingly, he was banned from entering the Soviet Union again.

But his determination to find out what was really going on in the world continued to burn. Ultimately, it was to cost him his life. In 1935, during a "Round-The-World Fact-Finding Tour", Jones was captured by bandits in Inner Mongolia and shot dead, He was just 29.

His achievements might have been forgotten were it not for the efforts of his niece, Dr Margaret Siriol Colley, whose book 'More than a Grain of Truth’ was first published 15 years ago.

That account also inspired the film 'Mr Jones', starring James Norton in the title role and and directed by Agnieszka Holland.

Jones' family say his approach to journalism is as relevant as ever.

Jones died at 29, shot by bandits in Inner Mongolia Credit: The estate of Margaret Colley

"Today we seem to be entering a dark age of populist leaders and authoritarian governments which I think Gareth, sadly, would recognise all too well: fake news and propaganda, suppression of free speech even here in Britain. So today, I think we need journalists of Gareth's calibre more than ever."

– Philip Colley, Gareth Jones' great nephew
Jones' diary recording his meeting with Hitler and Goebbels Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

Today, Jones' notebooks - including his first impressions of the Russian famine and that meeting with Hitler - are kept at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth.

On Valentine's Day, a screening of "Mr Jones" was held at the library, not far from the university where its hero studied almost a century ago.

It's a fitting tribute to a short but brilliant career. A career which - his family hope - will inspire journalists for generations to come.