Postcard from the Summit

Postcard from the Summit


Dear Nationistas,

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.)

Maybe it was enough that, unlike the London Economic Conference in 1933, when irreconcilable differences between Europe and the US pushed the world further into depression, this summit ended with smiles all around. "Today begins New Labour’s next great leap forward," said Peter Mandelson, Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory reform who, before he returned to government was famed–and feared–for his mastery of spin. Indeed the sight of Lord Mandelson darting from one group of bored hacks to the next during the endless afternoon, bestowing an apercu here, a witty remark there, was for some the highlight of the day’s entertainments. "Are you an important American," he asked me, and being assured I was not swiftly moved on to greener pastures, leaving only the faintest whiff of sulfur in his wake.

My own sense is that the real interest at the G20 lay at the margins–or outside the hall altogether. Police thuggishness against the obviously peaceful climate campers will doubtless radicalize some. And though the Western press seemed not to notice, Obama’s colloquy with a reporter from the Times of India was more than just a display of Presidential charm. Calling Manmohan Singh, who is in the midst of a tough election battle at home, "a very wise and decent man, [who] has done a wonderful job in guiding India, even prior to being Prime Minister, along a path of extraordinary economic growth that is a marvel, I think, for all the world" was an extraordinary endorsement from one leader to another–and one that Gordon Brown probably envies.

Being in the room while Obama fielded questions with the grace of Willie Mays roaming the outfield was, I must admit, very satisfying–and I suspect that even American expats who don’t share the Nation’s politics share my relief at no longer having to be ashamed of our president. But the most interesting part of the whole experience for me had nothing to do with Obama, or Gordon Brown, or even the financial crisis. Rather it was the conversation I had with Cheryl Contee, a young blogger at Jack & Jill Politics, a website which offers "a black bourgeoisie perspective." Listening to her explain not only her own, and her readers’, stake in the new president’s success, but also watching as she and her friend Sam Graham-Felsen (a former Nation intern!) managed to cover the entire proceedings, live and in real time, from their laptops, was both fascinating and humbling. Here, I felt, was the antidote to all the big-foot media posturing that events like the G20 seem designed to feed. Of course the problem of how to get beyond the shiny synthetic surface of the day’s events remains. Nor, even after their patient tuition, am I sure I really get the point of Twitter. But if a way can be found to harness the technological brio of these web 2.0 journalists with the sustained attention and skeptical analytical rigor of old-school–I might even say I.F.Stone-style–investigative reporting, then our fourth estate might yet have a new lease on life.


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