Senior UK diplomat in Brussels apologises to media for bungles

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The Independent Online

Sir John Grant, the UK's ambassador to the EU, expressed his "wholehearted regret" after poor logistics, heavy-handed security and disastrous IT marred high-profile events.

After two meetings in Britain, the continental media mocked Tony Blair's plea for Europe to compete in the information age, noting the lack of reliable internet access at the UK's gathering.

The failings of the British rail network have also been highlighted and the off-hand treatment of journalists has been portrayed as symbolic of the UK's coolness towards the EU.

Meanwhile, an official complaint has been made to the British embassy in Berlin after a German journalist was barred from a meeting because he asked for an idle X-ray machine to be used to cut waiting time at a security check.

So chaotic were arrangements for journalists at an informal meeting of foreign ministers in Newport, south Wales, earlier this month, that the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, said publicly he could "only apologise" for a lack of internet access.

Now Sir John has written to the journalists' association in Brussels, adding: "I wholeheartedly regret the inconvenience caused to you members by the unfortunate technical problems experienced at the EU foreign ministers meeting." One week after the Newport fiasco, similar problems arose at a meeting of justice and interior ministers in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

Ironically, the UK representation to the EU had organised a successful trip for foreign journalists to London in July, designed to garner goodwill. The headlines since have been less sympathetic. The German press highlighted how a correspondent from the Berliner Zeitung, Gerold Büchner, was removed from the Newport meeting by police after asking for an idle X-ray machine to be switched on to save waiting time.

The influential Süddeutsche Zeitung recalled how Mr Blair asked Europe to react to "the economic and technical challenges from Asia instead of looking backwards," adding: "The British failed almost for a day to provide hundreds of participants with an internet connection. Even with old technologies, and with transport they had problems."

Referring to Mr Büchner, the paper concluded: "Perhaps, in his call to engage with Asia, Blair meant following the Chinese example of gagging journalists."

The Frankfurter Rundschau reported how the presidency "which had promised transparency and openness, succeeded in a few hours in driving hundreds of correspondents to fury."

Meanwhile, the Spanish agency Europa Press described "organisational chaos" and that "the difficulties and uncomfortable situation for the media added to the difficulties which many correspondents experienced getting to Newport using British railways, which yesterday collapsed for hours." The same agency reported that, in Newcastle, 100 workstations were provided although 400 journalists requested accreditation.

Meanwhile, the Catalan daily, Avui, told its readers: "Great Britain's lack of interest in the EU is noticeable during many [EU] legislative negotiations, in its absence from the eurozone and the significant number of eurosceptic MEPs. It was reflected yesterday in the bad organisation of the meeting. Journalists found themselves without enough telephones or places to work and without the means to send articles. 'It is chaos,' one minister said, adding another, unprintable, description."

Critics say Whitehall turf battles, lack of resources and an obsession with domestic media have helped create the problems with the foreign press.