New Labour, new austerity welcomes foreign journalists

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Indy Politics
Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, is about to bring down the shutters on the junkets and gifts lavishly handed out to the thousands of journalists who attend European summits.

The Treasury fears that food, drink and gifts for the media hordes could cost the taxpayer as much as pounds 1.5m when Britain takes on the six months' presidency of the European Union in January.

Charlie Whelan, the Chancellor of the Exchequer's press secretary, said in Amsterdam yesterday: "We are determined to keep the costs down, without excessive hospitality and gifts."

But foreign journalists reacted with anger to the decision yesterday and warned that it could "backfire" and have a detrimental effect on the way Britain was portrayed overseas.

The generosity and scale of this week's Amsterdam summit has left British officials aghast.

With an estimated 3,200 journalists and technicians accredited, a running buffet of sand- wiches, cream cakes, cherry waffles, chocolate eclairs, orange juice and coffee has been topped by meals served on barges moored on the Amstel River.

Nothing has been too much for the Dutch government. As well as ice cream cornets, the journalists have even been given free telephones to call anywhere in the world. Normally, at summits, the telephone calls, at least, are charged to the individual.

There has been a free gift of a luggage trolley complete with a bottle of high octane spirits, and an expensive set of pens. The British estimate that the Dutch taxpayer will have to fork out about pounds 1m for two days' entertainment of the media.

By contrast, Britain's proposed parsimony provoked threats of a boycott of the summit from sections of the foreign press corps. Ali Bahaijoub, a former president of the London-based Foreign Press Association, said: "This will be received very badly.

"To be thrifty can be counter-productive. If you have got 1,000 journalists coming to cover the summit then to spend pounds 50,000 on them is more than justifiable."

He said that poor hospitality would only annoy journalists and contribute to "knocking copy" which would reflect badly on Britain.

He added: "London is the hub of the world's press and if they carry on treating us badly people will just move out."

The foreign press corps is already smarting over Britain's decision to restrict access to the recent visit to Downing Street by United States President, Bill Clinton, to American and British reporters. By contrast, other countries have turned the wooing of journalists into a fine art.

Reporters visiting many southern European countries are feted by government officials, given rooms in luxury country hotels and swanky seaside resorts with plentiful supplies of high-quality food and drink.

Italy is said to have even considered flying a selected group of journalists from Brussels to Rome in a private jet for a one-night party "to celebrate the end of the presidency".

The Greeks treated hacks to a short stay on a holiday island. "It was completely non-work related," one journalist reported.

When Ireland held the presidency in 1990 an entire train - with its own bar and dining car - was given over to moving the press around the country. Reporters talked of the "flow of Guinness" as they went on a trip from Dublin to Galway where they were accommodated in a superb country mansion.

The fine hospitality is usually accompanied by generous interview facilities with gov- ernment ministers. One reporter from Brussels said: "The countries that have the least diplomatic clout felt it was more important to get the journalists on their side."

Four summits are scheduled in Britain: in January there will be a jobs summit in London for the G8 group of eight most industrialised nations; a European economic and finance ministers' meeting in York in February; and two summits in June - another G8 in Birmingham, and a meeting for European Union heads of government in Cardiff.

The path for Britain's new Labour, new austerity policy, should be paved by the Luxembourgers, who are next in line for the European presidency, to the end of the year. They have charged for food and drink at summits in the past and are notorious - and even resented - for the fact that they resolutely refuse to hand out free gifts.