French President Francois Hollande (R) smiles as leaders pose for a family photo at the NATO summit in Chicago on May 21, 2012.
(AFP PHOTO/Philippe Wojazer/Pool)

by Jo Biddle


It all began with a tent. Admittedly a very large tent complete with air-conditioning, well-stocked snack bars, editing units and cozy corners. But it was still a tent. In a field. About half a mile away from the main hotel in Coolum on Queenland's Sunshine Coast where the Commonwealth leaders were meeting in March 2002. Frustratingly the press pack who had gathered to record the summit could see the hotel a bit like a shimmering mirage across the grassy grounds, but apart from one or two carefully orchestrated gatherings, the journalists and the politicians were resolutely kept apart.

In Chicago last week for the NATO summit, I was starkly reminded of that tent and the succession of sterile, locked down convention centers which I have had the misfortune to see the inside of over the past decade covering a wide variety of international gatherings.

The Commonwealth gathering had had to be postponed from October 2001, when in the chaos and trauma that followed the September 11 attacks, governments and organizations tore up their security plans, forced to re-think their strategies.

 And somewhere along the way, journalists were transformed from being a necessary, if unwelcome, nuisance into the potential enemy.

 Perhaps with just cause. After all two men posing as reporters had assassinated Afghan opposition leader Ahmad Shah Massoud just two days before the 9/11 attacks, detonating explosives hidden in their camera.

Some of the delegates wait at their desks for the second Executive Session to start at CHOGM in Coolum, 03 March, 2002.
(AFP Photo/Will Burgess)

But the reality has meant dwindling access for reporters to political leaders and their entourages. 

In Chicago, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen gave a daily briefing. US President Barack Obama also had a press conference to wrap up events and then there were a few other snippets thrown to the media pack. I watched most everything on live streaming on my computer, conscious also of not being late in filing the "money quote" out to the world of instant social media. And while the heightened security at such huge gatherings -- which can bring together tens of thousands of people -- has undoubtedly led to better protection for all involved, the added effect has been to hand governments tight control of the unruly media, ensuring they stay on message and only report what they are being fed.

I sometimes yearn for more innocent times, when contacts in one delegation would surreptitiously sneak you the coveted draft of the summit’s final declaration. You only got it, through good ol’ fashioned doorstepping. And it was a badge of honor to be first out with the news.

In Hanoi in 1997 at a summit for Francophone speaking countries, the communist authorities kept close tabs on western journalists suddenly descending on their tightly-run country. But I shook then French president Jacques Chirac’s hand in a posh hotel, and listened in awe as Canadian prime minister Jean Chretien, just a few meters from me, delivered an impassioned speech against attacking Iraq in one of the city’s fading, but delightful colonial theaters.

In Kuala Lumpur for an APEC summit the following year, while protests raged outside against the arrest of Anwar Ibrahim, we were shoved to one side as US vice president Al Gore walked past within arm’s reach. He went on to deliver a scathing speech, blasting the Malaysian authorities for their treatment of Anwar.

US Vice-President Al Gore (R) embraces Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo as the two part company after the APEC leaders' final declaration 18 November at the Cyberview Lodge some 50 kilometers from Kuala Lumpur.
(AFP Photo/Jonathan Utz)

Now there are no more quiet conversations huddled with cabinet officials in corridors, no more bumping into world leaders, little face to face contact and frankly no more real information about what is happening behind the scenes.

Come Chicago 2012, the corralling of the media had reached new heights, bordering on the surreal. Descending down several floors in our hotel, our bags were enthusiastically sniffed by several police dogs before we were herded onto coaches and driven under the metro system, along some immaculately groomed railway sidings, up a ramp and into the back door of the convention center. I didn’t even glimpse Chicago and its famous skyline. And it was only the next day that I realized the NATO leaders were actually meeting in the same building. On a different floor. To which most of us had no access.

So the end of the NATO summit leaves me with a bitter taste of media manipulation. And the worrying notion that just a few years down the line, the ubiquitous press conferences which at least give journalists a chance to ask a real question will have morphed into a video conference with perhaps just a chosen few. The advantage of course is I could just stay home and avoid the fierce air-conditioning of the convention centers, and "cover" a summit of world leaders from the comfort of my own living room. It would save a lot of time, money and ecologically be better for the planet. 

But the rebellious reporter somewhere inside me chafes against the danger that at such mega international events reporters could perhaps slowly, and almost imperceptibly, turn into little more than an arm of an unofficial global PR agency. Regurgitating declarations and statements, does little to probe the critical issues dominating our world. NATO in Chicago charted a course out of Afghanistan, handing over control to Afghan forces from 2013 ahead of a total withdrawal of combat forces by the end of 2014. But other than optimistic assurances that the Afghan security forces will be ready, little was said about the very tough logistics on the ground, or the daily fear and insecurity woven into the fabric of many Afghans’ daily lives. The message we were supposed to take home from Chicago was that in the end everything will be all right.

But as events in the Arab world have shown over the past year, a compliant and complacent press does not serve the people. It fails the people. I’m sure those brave correspondents and citizen journalists who have helped expose the brutality of successive regimes in recent months would have little time for the smooth-talking low-level government spokespeople with their helpful handouts who navigate the soulless halls of conference convention centers.

World leaders pose for the family photo after meeting on Afghanistan during the NATO Summit at McCormick Place on May 21, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois.
(Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images/AFP)