Out of the West: Payment? It's just academic

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BOSTON - I went to Cambridge last weekend - home of Harvard - and learned some new words. I thought I was to speak at a conference, but actually it was a colloquium or symposium. And rather than doing it for free I was there gratis, or without honoraria.

This symposium was not at Harvard but at Tufts University. It was still deep inside the ventricles of American academia where such real-world considerations as money are not talked about. They speak Latin instead.

My conviction that this was going to be an exchange far above the clouds - and me - was reinforced by the title on the programme: Transformations in the Global Economy. And the line-up of fellow panellists was daunting: famous economists, commentators and retired politicians.

The fact that none of these distinguished people were being paid for their time - some had even bought their own air tickets - should have been the first clue that my fears were to prove unfounded. I might have noted also that the whole event had been arranged and would be administered by students.

Specifically, my hosts were the 20-odd Tufts undergraduates enrolled in a course called Education for Public Inquiry and International Citizenship, or EPIIC. True, some of the time, EPIIC was about right. On the second night the city was buried under a nearly a foot of snow and our journey back to the hotel was something akin to the voyage of Scott and Oates.

We noted also that with students in the chair and afraid to shut speakers up, each session was over-running not by minutes but by hours.

But it was the students with their urgent curiosity and desire to get to the heart of each question that kept the discussions - or most of them - staked to the ground. Experts accustomed to drifting unimpeded into the higher atmosphere of theory and self-glorification found themselves beaten downwards by the simplicity and directness of the audience's questions.

On our panel we were to discuss how world economic issues are reported in the media - the world trade talks, the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), transatlantic relations and so forth. Most of us either current or former reporters, we were harsh on our own profession. There was a consensus among the American panellists, for instance, that the implications of the Nafta pact, promising free trade with Mexico and Canada, had been hopelessly under-investigated. Specifically, why was the argument that free-trade is, per se, a good thing so rarely challenged in the press?

Then the central question was asked. Given all that, how do you bring these issues to the pages and the television screens in a way that will be accessible to the greatest number? Can you get people to read about Gatt without working Amy Fisher into the third paragraph? Do we over- or under-estimate our reading and viewing audiences? Do news organisations actually have the money for original reporting? Are the media corrupt anyhow?

All these considerations were given an even deeper and more specific hearing at the concluding 'workshop' on Sunday. For this, our group was merged with the panel on international banking fraud. It was a terrific three hours, made so partly by my fellow panellists, Leonard Silk, an economic sage, recently retired, of the New York Times, and Jack Blum, now a Washington attorney, who first broke the BCCI scandal. Mr Blum has tales that would make any reporter salivate and institutions such as the Bank of England and the Serious Fraud Office tremble.

Of course, this was just a conference (sorry, symposium) and nothing was said that will change the world. For what it is worth, though, I left with plenty of new perspectives. I want to investigate Nafta further. And I feel much better equipped to put the case to my editors for a trip to the Cayman Islands to look into the morality of off-shore banking. And all that apart, Cambridge and Boston were even more picturesque than usual under the blanket of March snow.

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