One can laugh at many idiosyncrasies and diseases of the American democracy, but the present tape affair caused by [the Polish newsmagazine] “Wprost” clearly shows that, in the public life standards category, we are — let me paraphrase a delegate to the parliament, Killion Munyama — 100 years behind the Americans.
And however unflattering it is for us, it’s worth reflecting on how all that is going on in Poland right now would unfold on the other side of the ocean.
Mark Belka Talks with Barney Sienkiewicz
Let’s suppose that in some restaurant in Washington, there is a meeting between the U.S. Federal Reserve chairman (Mark Belka’s equivalent) and a high-ranking official in the Obama administration (in place of Barney Sienkiewicz, since there is no minister of the interior in U.S.).
One cannot exclude that they too — while drinking a glass of whiskey — would use, with relish and ardor, words commonly regarded as abusive and would boast about the length of their sexual organs. Here, however, is where possible similarities between Poland and America come to an end.
Among many differences, the most sensible is that Mark and Barney’s American equivalents would not let themselves be recorded; they would talk about important matters only in a place that had been adequately inspected.
I am not saying that the conversation of their Polish counterparts was important. On the contrary, I think that Belka and Sienkiewicz did not strike any secret political bargain and only chatted while having dinner. Yet something important did occur during that conversation: Belka hypothetically suggested that the National Bank of Poland could carry out “special actions” to prevent the Law and Justice Party from winning the election.
What “special actions” did he have in mind? He meant quantitative easing (QE), something that the Fed has been doing on a large scale for a couple of years, which involves buying American securities not directly from the Obama administration — it’s not allowed — but from private banks that earlier bought them from the government. Many economists reckon that it is a poorly hidden form of money printing and strongly condemn it, but many economists also think that QE saved America from catastrophe.
So let’s repeat: from a technical point of view, “specials actions” are not a scandal, but their motives are problematic.
Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Fed between the years 2006 to 2014, used QE first to save and then revive the economy (or, strictly speaking, to lower unemployment and keep prices stable). If somebody from the Obama administration came to him and said that “special actions” needed to be carried out because the Republicans were doing well in the polls and might win the election, the conversation would end there. And this is not only because Bernanke is a Republican. He would put an end to that sort of talk even if he were a Democrat. If he did not, he would have to resign after the conversation’s disclosure, even if it were purely social chitchat.
Fed chairmen are really apolitical and independent. Bernanke was nominated by George W. Bush, but Obama kept him in that post until his second term. Alan Greenspan was nominated by Reagan and was also a confirmed Republican, but he respected Democrat Bill Clinton the most while serving 20 years in the Fed.
Belka is a good chairman of the National Bank of Poland, but before that, he was a leading Polish politician for many years, and even served as prime minister. It’s probable that in that unfortunate moment, when he was talking while being listened to, his political side prevailed. It’s a lesson to not choose ex-politicians as chairmen of the National Bank of Poland, even the most competent and sophisticated ones.
American Newspapers Don’t Just Want t=To Stir the Pot
Going back to our comparison exercise: Let’s imagine the highly unlikely situation that Mark and Barney’s American counterparts said the same things and were recorded, and the tapes were given to the right-wing Wall Street Journal.
Now the WSJ, before publishing the recordings, would pass a draft of the article to Obama’s spokesperson and the Fed’s press office to give the heroes a chance to express themselves. This is also because American journalists, even the right-wing ones, don’t just want to antagonize the Democrats’ government and tout cheap affairs; they also care about the public good.
It often occurs that the U.S. government asks journalists to remove something from their text or to delay their publication for a couple of days, although not, of course, in order to protect the Fed chairman. Usually the reason is national security — one can imagine that the supposed conversation in a restaurant would be recorded by foreign intelligence agents, who would afterward give it to journalists. The FBI might trail those agents, but some piece of the article could alert them and help them escape scrutiny.
“Wprost” did not consult Tusk’s government before publishing, but instead hit out of nowhere, because the national good — despite loud, artificial declarations — does not matter, and “Wprost” knows very little about journalism standards.
Unfortunately, the reaction of the Polish authorities to the “Wprost” publication shows that this highly inconsiderate newspaper needs to be defended simply out of principle, namely the principle that free media is a foundation of a healthy country.
American Prosecution Would Not Raid an Editorial Office
And here we get to the end of our miserable comparison exercise. American prosecution, which — contrary to Poland — is completely dependent on the government, would not enter the WSJ editorial office together with FBI agents to secure the recordings for inquiry.
Admittedly not long ago something like this happened in Great Britain — police entered The Guardian’s editorial office to secure materials stolen by Edward Snowden from an allied American agency — but in America itself it would be unthinkable. Scandal would explode, which the U.S. attorney general would not have a chance to survive, and not just because the famous First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees media freedom and freedom of speech to such an extent that drivers may freely show their middle finger to the police.
Formally speaking, the first amendment does not guarantee immunity to journalists. For example, three years ago American prosecutors secretly monitored the telephone connections of AP agency journalists — not the content of the conversations, but the call records — to find out from whom in the government they were getting secret information. But in that case, it was about a foiled terrorist attack — i.e., about the security of the state and the CIA agents involved in the operation, not about chitchats in a restaurant. And while prosecutors’ motives were justified, a scandal exploded in Washington; as a result, the Department of Justice introduced new, limited rules regarding investigations against journalists.
And what about us? We can only hope that after a couple more affairs like this, we all — politicians, journalists and the public — will be so educated that Poland will almost be like America.