Poland's `voice' serves up sarcasm with the news. Spokesman savages as well as informs reporters
Warsaw — Jerzy Urban provides the news - and makes it. Tuesday, precisely at noon, the Polish government spokesman dishes out invaluable portions of information, spiced with large helpings of scorn and sarcasm, to hungry foreign correspondents.
When Mr. Urban began his weekly press conferences five years ago, they were a major innovation. Nowhere else in the communist world did officials meet with press so regularly without restrictions on questions.
That policy is changing, thanks largely to Urban. Other East-bloc governments have begun appointing spokesmen. And of course there's Moscow, where the policy of glasnost, or openness, has meant more-forthcoming officials and more-frequent press conferences for foreign journalists.
``All socialist countries are looking for new forms of contact with the press,'' Urban said in an interview, explaining why East-bloc colleagues have sought his advice. ``Each country has different traditions and ideas, but my press conferences serve as an interesting example.''
Other East European spokesmen do not yet match Urban's openness. In hard-line Czechoslovakia, officials remain hostile, refusing to answer most sensitive questions. Even in liberal Hungary, spokesman Rezso Banyasz had a rocky start following his appointment. When one Western correspondent in an interview asked about Hungary's 1956 revolution, Mr. Banyasz lost his temper.
Poland is more advanced in its news policy because of its Solidarity experience. Before the independent trade union appeared in 1980, ``government officials rarely met with journalists and made only routine announcements,'' Urban says. ``Then Solidarity leaders began searching out Western correspondents, and the government had to find a way to compete.''
Even after Solidarity was crushed in 1981, news policy could not return to the rules of the past. The Polish public now expects a free flow of information. The Polish government also learned it is better to be aggressive and disclose information than to stay on the defensive and fail to respond to stories as they develop.
``The Western press have conducted a misinformation campaign against Poland,'' Urban says, ``and my press conferences give us a chance to set the record straight.'' Reading glasses perched on his nose, his bald pate shining under the glare of television light, and his elfin ears emphasizing his five-foot frame, he begins every conference by savaging the Western news media. An exemplary performance came last December.
In a 30-minute opening statement, Urban attacked Western news organizations by name for engaging in ``a campaign of lies and provocative accusations'' while covering the 1981 crackdown. ``Agence France-Presse,'' he recalls, ``reported that [Solidarity leader Lech] Walesa had suffered a heart attack. [The British Broadcasting Corporation] reported massive rebellions in the Army.'' Between and after the vitriol, he offered nuggets of news.
Urban is both reviled and respected by Western journalists. ``On the one hand, he can be nasty and incomplete,'' says Jackson Diehl, the Washington Post's Warsaw-based correspondent. ``On the other hand, Urban really helps you get an interview and an answer.''
He also evokes mixed emotions among Poles. Given the government's aim of national reconciliation, many question having a spokesman who delights in antagonizing people. Others find Urban's raison d'^etre buried in his abrasiveness.
``He plays the role of a lightning rod,'' explains Janusz Onyszkiewicz, Solidarity's spokesman. ``He concentrates all the resentment on himself so there's none left over for the rest of the government.''
Urban seems to enjoy the role of outsider. Of Jewish background, he is an anomaly in a government that was purged of Jews in 1968. Even more surprising, he is not a Communist Party member, though he is one of the most-quoted members of a communist government.
His political views, like his character, are hard to define. As a columnist for the magazine Polityka in the 1970s, he often attacked government policies. After Solidarity was created, however, he criticized the trade union for trying to change the system too fast. He entered the government at this period with the support of his former editor, who was by then deputy prime minister.
``Urban's very intelligent - and totally cynical,'' says Jacek Maziarski, a former Polityka colleague. ``He's a hired pen, a guy who will do anything for money, and in the present climate, that has let him become one of the principal architects of this government's policies.''
Urban does wield wide power. By his own account, he sits in on meetings of the Council of Ministers and offers his opinions. He alone speaks for the Polish government. This lets him control most information emanating from official sources.
``Let's say there's an accident in a provincial hospital,'' he says. ``In the US, the hospital would have a spokesman. In Poland, my office would have to collect all the information and release it.''
The example contains one positive element. Before Urban gained power, no official would have commented on the accident. But it also shows the distance between Western and Eastern attitudes toward the news.
``It would be better if local figures could answer questions,'' Urban admits. ``Unfortunately, local people here in Poland don't have much experience dealing with the press.''