Just Words: In the beginning was the Speech…
…and the speech was plagiarized.
As Nana Akufo-Addo unwittingly notched his name at the bottom of a long list of political personalities whose speeches were inadvertently plagiarised from other sources, we take a look at what might just be this decade’s over-flogged horse.
President Akufo-Addo’s speech at his swearing in ceremony in Accra, Ghana, was nothing short of magnificent – at least for the few minutes people considered it original. Thereafter, it all went downhill for the new man at the helm of Ghana’s affairs, as journalists on social media quickly pointed out the unmissable similarities between his speech and that of two US presidents – an overkill, even for presidential plagiarism standards. The presidency’s reaction was swift, an apology from the residential spokesperson and also his head of communications, Eugene Arhin as words like “oversight” and “never deliberate” were tossed here and there. Eventually, the world simply filed away the incident as “just another plagiarism”.
Before the infamous Melania Trump/Michelle Obama plagiarism row, which happened pre the US election tragedy, the world has had to deal with quite a few “speech-borrowing” incidents. Are presidents/political figures becoming less thorough or are campaign/communications directors simply lazy?
Whatever the issue is, if it’s any consolation for Akufo-Addo, the Ghanaian president is now on a list that includes several illustrious characters. One of which, is the US president, Barack Obama. Surprised? Well I suppose when you’ve carved out an impression as the world’s coolest man who can do no wrong, you literally should no wrong. In 2008, a young energetic Senator Barack Obama was accused by the Hilary camp of plagiarising the “Just Words” speech of Massachusetts’ Governor, Deval Patrick. Of course Obama apologised for the “mistake” stating that Deval was a good friend and they often “exchanged” ideas.
In 2016, First Lady of the United States, Melania Trump “exchanged ideas” verbatim with Michelle Obama, lifting the former First Lady’s speech with zero credit at the Republican National Convention. It was the sort of headline you didn’t really want when your husband was already running against all odds. While that didn’t matter in the end, it was every news editor’s dream as the story was aflame for days after the convention.
Ghana’s neighbour, Nigeria, was spared no blushes when President Muhammadu Buhari’s “Change begins with me” speech in September 2016, was discovered to have been plagiarised from Obama’s 2008 victory speech (which may or may not have been “borrowed” from one of his friends). The usual apologies were offered while a deputy director of communications got the axe.
Is Plagiarism in speeches always wrong?
The short answer, Yes. The long answer? An exaggerated, winding definition that makes it look much worse than it really is. As an academic crime of sorts, “plagiarism is stealing” has filtered through to give it the worst possible interpretation. Yes, its unethical nature, in line with academia’s gruesome search for originality, will always make it seem like an act worthy of the hangman. However, this is exaggerated. Stealing is an act that deprives, the original owner of the use of his property. Plagiarism of a part of a speech can be considered in many ways, an ode to the original writer.
With technology, the world is going to know that you stole the speech within seconds of you saying every word. President Akufo-Addo was barely down the podium when he became a Twitter trending topic. However, where’s the crime in saying what’s already been said, if the message remains general, untouched and the intention, is really the same?
One feels that a certain much-ado-about nothing-ness has now created blue murder in situations of “speech-borrowing”, allowing the glory in the message to be lost in the furore of whether said speech was plagiarised or otherwise. What could have been a glorious 10 minutes, where words of inspiration were offered to people who desperately wanted to hear them, is quickly turned to an endless moment of scrutiny, investigations, apologies and heads on spikes.
The simple solution revolves around simply attributing the speech to the original speechwriter (or more appropriately – speech maker), but the oddity of that cannot be ignored. “Oh hey guys, firstly this speech is culled from two US presidents…” is not the ideal way to imprint your persona on the speech and that really, is the entire point of presidential speeches.
Presidents, governors, First Ladies etc. want the message in the speech to be reflective of them as conveyors of said message. So while copying these messages are an indictment on the lack of thoroughness and attention to detail of the speaker’s team, the rage that follows these speeches should be hosed down. A message to a people remains so, regardless of who wrote it.