I can’t honestly say that covering the G20 from the inside was fun or that I wish you’d all been there, cooped up (if not exactly "kettled") inside the bleak cavernous expanse of the ExCel Centre. The main problem was not the venue, though the unfailingly amusing Tory columnist Andrew Gimson spoke for most of the press corps when he said that the ExCel, a conference hall about as close to the center of London as The Meadowlands is to Times Square, "felt like a cross between a high-security prison and one of the less charming provincial airports." And that was before the hour-long queue to be allowed to leave the building. No, the real difficulty is that the media at a summit are like eunuchs in a harem–however luxurious the perks, we never get anywhere near the action.
This morning’s papers will be full of big numbers: $1.1 Trillion according to the FT, President Obama’s "$2 Trillion in global fiscal expansion", $5 Trillion according to the rather more optimistic accounting of host Gordon Brown. But the devil is in the details, and so far no one knows (a) whether any of these save-the-world stimulus dollars are new money (b) where most of these funds are coming from. What we were told–$100 billion for the IMF from Europe, another $100 billion from Japan–suggested that a lot of this money had been already been committed weeks, even months before the G20. China’s $ 40 billion contribution was new, but the amount, less than some had predicted, was seen more as an expression of Chinese annoyance with still being excluded from the top table at the IMF and the OECD than as an endorsement of any global pump priming. Nor (c) can I report the details of whatever deal–or diplomatic magic–persuaded French President Nicholas Sarkozy not to take his bat and ball and go home as he reportedly threatened to do if Obama and Brown didn’t agree to a more dirigiste approach to international banking. (Though Obama might well have been sympathetic, that was always going to be a tough sell for the British. It was hardly the balmy climate–or even the much-improved local cuisine–that lured the world’s bankers to London in the wake of Thatcher’s de-regulatory Big Bang)
What I can tell you is that while we waited for the communique to come down from the mountaintop reporters feasted on fresh soup and sandwiches and stale rumors. Did the late arrival of Sarkozy’s personal make-up artist, reportedly held up by security aboard a press bus, really so delay the leaders’ group photo that the Canadian Prime Minister, unable to wait any longer, ended up in the toilets (and out of the picture)? Would the French and Germans issue a minority report? Had Alistair Darling, Chancellor of the Exchequer, really smuggled a live duck into the proceedings? (That one at least turned out to be a joke.)