Free Speech

“If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” More than ever are these words of George Washington important and, assuming self-slaughter is not one of our new year’s resolutions, do they express a principle on which there should be no compromise. And above all must free speech protect the expression of the unpopular because the expression of the popular requires no such protection. We must be ever wary of the coalition of the thin-skinned and PC zealots who seek to close down, rather than to engage in, any debate of which they disapprove and whose concept of free speech is limited to their own particular groupthink (Orwell was certainly right about the pernicious effects of Newspeak, as foreseen in 1984).

Be that as it may, it is free speech, or rather paid for speech, that has landed our old friend Radek Sikorski in hot water again, barely a week since last time (please see The Gravy Train). The latest allegations of questionable expenditure of public funds relate to consultancy fees paid for speeches Sikorski made. According to magazine Wprost during the time when Sikorski served as foreign minister of Poland, some PLN 250,000 (Euro 58,100) was paid to Charles Crawford, the former British ambassador to Poland, who now runs a consultancy advising on negotiating and mediating and public speaking and presenting.

It is claimed that Crawford was paid an average of PLN 19,000 for each of the 14 speeches in question. However, the foreign ministry has insisted that Sikorski, who was educated at Oxford – as, incidentally, were Charles Crawford and I – wrote the speeches (in English) himself, and that Charles Crawford had been employed solely as an editor. And based on Charles Crawford’s tweets, he seems rather pleased with the excellent publicity for his newly released book, Speechwriting for Leaders, which this controversy has generated.

To add fuel to the fire, Wprost also pointed out that during the period during which the speeches were written, the daughter of former Polish finance minister Jacek Rostowski, was employed by the foreign ministry as an editor of materials written in English. Apparently, even more sinister in the eyes of Wprost is the fact that Rostowski was raised in the UK and is a friend of Sikorski, although most normal folk would expect men with similar connections to the UK who served in the same government together for several years as senior ministers to be friends. Perhaps there was some confusion between Anglophilia and one of the rather more objectionable ’ophilias in the news.

These allegations of excessive spending first came to light in June 2014, after an illicit tape recording captured Sikorski using colourful language on a variety of subjects over lunch with Rostowski at a Warsaw restaurant. The foreign ministry paid PLN 1352.25 for that lunch, although Sikorski later refunded the cost of the wine, after Wprost published transcripts of the recordings (please see Shattered Reputations).

Does it matter? Well, without doubt, dishonest expenses claims, if proven, must be dealt with severely, not least pour encourager les autres as Voltaire said of the execution of Admiral Byng (shot on his own quarter deck for having failed to prevent the French capturing Minorca in 1756, if in case you were wondering). On the wider point as to whether it was worth paying Charles Crawford to polish Sikorski’s speeches – as opposed to his English a la Tusk – the answer seems to be yes.

After all, the impact on Poland’s international standing created by having its foreign minister making good speeches in good English was probably much more effective, for example, than the rather odd “Polska. Spring Into” campaign on which millions was lavished. Indeed, having had native English speaker Rostowski representing Poland at international financial gatherings at the same time as Sikorski was foreign minister was doubtless a plus in presenting an image of a modern and engaged Poland to the world.

I hope Sikorski survives the repeated calls for his resignation. Polish politics does not overflow with internationally capable folk and, if nothing else, he always provides something to write about.

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