Butterfly Effect

by Martyna Sokołowska
Translated, edited and additional commentary by Tomasz Oryński

Every day army of young wannabe journalists fill the space in the Daily Mail and other British tabloids with bits and pieces they find on the Internet or from news agencies. They wade through oceans of data in search of the stories that they reckon might be interesting for the British reader. It’s a dull job, just copy and paste, and sometimes add something to spice things up. From time to time they shape the text in such a way that it will match the expectations of their target audience better. Tabloid readers are especially keen to feed on racial hate or anything that could help them feel superior to others. But do people like Ellie Buchdahl or Sara Nelson ever think about what harm their job could cause to people living a thousand miles away and whom they have never even met and are unlikely to ever encounter? Here is the story of how recent publications in the Daily Mail and Huffington Post have shaken the lives of residents of a quiet, little Polish town – Ustrzyki Dolne – as reported by Martyna Sokołowska from the local portal iSanok.pl

On the 22nd of December, a Christmas Fair was taking place in Ustrzyki. One of the attractions of that event was the arrival of Father Christmas, who was to come on a sleigh and then hand out sweets to the kids gathered on the town’s main street. Suddenly, a horse that was pulling the sledge shied and galloped forward. According to the witnesses, the sledges were pulled for about 200 metres and then hit the corner of the building. In the accident, a 45-year-old man dressed as Santa, who was in charge of the sledge, and his 36-year-old wife, who played Santa’s helper, were injured.

The incident was captured on a camera by one of the witnesses, Zdzisław Mołodyński, who sent his pictures and description to the Polish TV station TVN. The internet portal TVN24 reported on the story: “Just before Christmas celebrations in Ustrzyki Dolne very unfortunate incident happened. Santa Claus was to be one of the attractions. While riding in his sledge around the market square, his horses shied and ran across the junction then hit the corner of the building throwing Santa and his helper out” was the witness’ statement.

On 23rd of December, the story was published by the Daily Mail. Its journalists referring to the witness’ statements claimed that the couple was completely drunk. Moreover, according to them, Santa and his helper were charged with driving under the influence. “This is utter nonsense” – contradicts outraged Dorota Głazowska-Krzywdzik, a police spokesperson – “They were both breath-tested right after the accident and I certainly can confirm that both woman and man were sober”. She can’t hide her indignation: “I never said anything like that, I am surprised by the information published by them”.

Daily Mail’s version of the events is also contested by the witness Zdzisław Mołodyński whose name was associated with the quote cited by the British newspaper. According to Daily Mail he “saw these two, who were clearly under the influence, behaving like they had just come out of a nightclub or something”. But nobody from Daily Mail has ever spoken to Mr Mołodyński. “Nobody called me, asked for the interview. They haven’t even asked for my pictures, they used them without my knowledge. And quoting a bunch of lies as my words is beyond all belief” – says outraged Mołodyński.

Since the publication of the article, his life has changed dramatically. He was afraid to leave his home, meet people, and even browse the Internet. He felt hounded. Ustrzyki Dolne is a very small town, everyone knows each other. When the Daily Mail article became the big news in the community, Mr Mołodyński became the main topic of discussion. Not everyone was willing to believe his account of the accident: “I was devastated, afraid to go out to people. Not everyone wanted to believe my explanations that the Daily Mail made the whole story up. Some people threatened me, abused me, and asked how much I was paid for it. And it wasn’t anything like that! I didn’t know people who were injured in the accident. Only later I learned that they were local teachers. Daily Mail harmed them as well by putting words into my mouth that made up a story as if they were drunk. Some people think that it was me who accused them of that, but this is not true! I can’t leave it like that” – says Mr Mołodyński.

He tried to get the Polish embassy in London involved with the matter. He sent them a short e-mail asking for their help. The embassy decided to help him and sent a letter to Daily Mail. Aleksandra Siemianowska from the Polish Embassy answered to Mr Mołodziński, informing him that they issued a protest to the paper’s editor. Daily Mail removed the questionable article from their website.

But this is not the end of Mr Mołodziński’s problems. Robert and Iwona Woch, residents of Brzegi Dolne, who were dressed as Santa and his helper and who were involved in the accident, reported the case to the prosecutor demanding people who were responsible for slandering them in the British media be fined and ordered to pay them a compensation. They see Mr Mołodziński as one of the people responsible for the situation as it was he who took the pictures just after the accident. “In one of his pictures, the face of my wife is visible. These pictures were taken and published without our consent” – says Robert Woch.

Daily Mail report has confused witnesses of the accident as well as Mr Woch and his wife. “Our good name was slandered, I won’t leave it like that. I want everyone who contributed to this situation to be held responsible”. Robert Woch is well-known personality in Ustrzyki Dolne. He works as a teacher and he is also a sworn translator of the German language. His 36-year-old wife, who on that feral day was with him in the sledge, works for the local NGO. “You have to understand that the portrayal of us in the British media is very harmful to the people in our position. I don’t want anyone to think that I am an irresponsible drunk” – says upset Robert Woch.

Mr Mołodziński regrets that he ever sent his pictures to the TV station. “I have never expected that this case will turn out like this. I won’t touch my camera now for a long, long time. I feel very sorry for what happened. It was never my intention to offend or harm anyone. Since my pictures were published in Daily Mail I am a nervous wreck

But his explanations do not convince Mr and Ms Woch. They hold a grudge toward Mołodziński for not helping them and running around with his camera instead. “He was behaving like a real paparazzi who feeds on blood and cheap sensation. It’s immoral and unethical, especially to take a picture of the faces of people in a such situation. I am exceptionally outraged by this” – says Mr Woch. – “He never asked us if he could take pictures or if we agreed to have them published. To protect himself, he spread false accusations on his Facebook account by publishing the link to the deceptive article. He seems to forget who is the real victim of the whole situation. Until today he did not try to speak to us. I want to believe that he wasn’t the source of the false information, but there is no excuse. I will try to make him responsible. I am not interested in where the false information came from. I hope the procurator will be able to clarify that. I reported to the procurator’s office slander and defamation of me, my wife, Police from Ustrzyki Dolne and Poles and Poland in general”.

The case is investigated by the procurator’s office in Lesko. According to Mr Robert Woch it has a political dimension. “There is a strange Poland-bashing campaign in the British media. They lie about us and slander us in all ways possible. In the beginning, I wasn’t willing to comment on the calumnies written about me and my wife in the media. But when I saw how big a repercussion it has, I thought that I have to face it to defend the good name of my family. I guess I am not the first man who found himself in a similar situation, and probably not the last one. Therefore I will do anything in my power to remove these lies about us from the public space

This ends Martyna Sokołowska’s reports on that case so far. Can we do anything to ensure that Woch family and Mr Mołodziński will be the last people to find themselves in such a situation because of a lack of conscience and carelessness of the British tabloids?

This is a compilation of three articles published by Martyna in iSanok in December 2013 and January 2014.
The above English translation has been published in Gazetae.com on 7th of January 2014

Update as of 24/04/2024

As we learned later the news agency responsible for the “Drunk Santa” story going viral was Central European News, run by Michael Leidig.

His business model, allegedly based on pulling random pictures/stories from the internet and then adding some made-up spicy details to it and selling them on, had been exposed by a Buzzfeed article “The King of Bullshit News“. Later on, Buzzfeed also covered the Drunk Santa story in detail in their article “How A Fake Viral News Story Wrecked Three People’s Lives“.

Mr Leidig sued Buzzfeed for slander but lost his case. He still seems to be convinced that he fell victim to some Buzzfeed conspiracy against him, and he argues so in a short movie he published on Twitter. He published a book in which he explains his side of the story, how Buzfeed destroyed his reputation by accusing him of fabricating the news. You can find his book in free audiobook form here, I am yet to listen to it myself.

But I know already that it is not true that Mr Leidig is only associated with bullshit news because of the Buzzfeed article. Why? Because of Martyna’s coverage and an article from Gazeta Wyborcza published on 30th December 2013 (here) exposed CEN as a purveyor of fake Drunken Santa stories over 15 months BEFORE the Buzzfeed article was published.

Picture of butterfly: Public Domain



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