Polish air crash: risking reputations

Today’s tragedy in Russia is unprecedented. Three things strike me. First, did the Polish government anticipate that such a crisis might occur, and prepare what to do and what to say in its aftermath? Secondly, how hard it must be for the families of ordinary passengers who were killed in the crash (in this case, the crew) when so much publicity and talk is about the deaths of government and military leaders. Thirdly, the situation is instantly complicated when there are rivalries or tensions between those involved: Poland and Russia.

Russia’s Putin appeared very swiftly, the impact of the tragedy etched on his face, taking control of the investigation. Good move. Meanwhile, the Russian flight control centre was swift to condemn the crew, by which they mean the pilots, for allegedly ignoring advice to divert and land elsewhere – presumably to place the blame firmly on Poland. Not a good move.

We in the UK must, I hope, have a crisis management plan in the event of major politicians and leaders being killed at the same time. There are several occasions a year when they are gathered together – or, at least, when significant groups of them are together. And, as most of them will be significant events – the state opening of parliament, the Mansion House speech, visits from foreign heads of state, royal weddings and funerals – security will be intense and massive, reducing the risk of a catastrophe. I hope there are rules about how many of them fly together, to minimise those risks – as with the monarch who never flies in the same plane as the heir to the throne, as with the US president and vice-president who are not allowed to fly together, and as with corporates where, typically, no more than two key leaders travel together precisely to ensure that the business can be run if those leaders were to be involved or killed in an accident.

I hope whatever plan we have takes into account the need to stress that the lives of ordinary people affected by any incident matter just as much – and to keep emphasising the point. The effect on and the grief of their family and friends must be recognised.

As for allegations about the pilots ignoring instructions, it is unusual for any facts about a crash to be known so soon afterwards. Typically, the black box needs to be analysed before facts emerge. If the comments are an attempt to shift blame … tut, tut, tut. And how might it make the pilots’ family and friends feel, perhaps unnecessarily? What might it do to the relationship between Russia and Poland if the black box reveals otherwise? And how will that affect Russia’s standing in the world? It’s far too early to assume that anything is fact.

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