Andreas Whittam Smith: First lesson of the Genoa summit? cut out the press

'My fellow scribes will be shocked. But do we learn anything worthwhile at summit meetings?'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

If the annual meetings of leaders of the eight industrialised economies go on as they have at Genoa this weekend, there will be more fatalities. And while these get-togethers do have value, they are not worth the propulsion of a single canister of tear gas, let alone injury and death.

The first summit took place in 1975 and was arranged by Valery Giscard d'Estaing, then president of France. He was worried that the spirit of co-operation was disappearing and 'we never have a serious conversation among the great capitalist leaders to say what we do now'.

These meetings of the so-called G8 group are not really decision-making, although the communiqué sometimes gives that impression. Their value is more subtle. The very act of each leader looking the other in the eye while forming temporary and often changing coalitions with each other according to the subject makes each one of them just a bit more careful to observe the international consensus when they get home. I take it for granted, for instance, that President Bush's thinking about global warming will have been at least slightly altered by the visit to Genoa. That is how the dynamics of such occasions work. The world is a little safer as a result.

The way the meetings are organised, however, is crazy. Just remember what the logistical task is; to arrange for eight people to meet together for two days once a year. Yet it appears that the Italians will have spent £100m on Genoa and the Japanese are said to have spent five times that amount when they were the hosts for the Okinawa summit.

The meetings are too big. Numerous advisors accompany the leaders. For any subject which may come up, each country has a platoon of specialists at the ready. Why is this? It is nervousness. Some leaders are worried that they will be insufficiently briefed. Some advisors are worried that their president or prime minister will say unwise things, make imprudent commitments and upset the careful conclusions reached by the real experts – in other words, themselves – unless they are present.

The first reform I propose is that leaders should each be accompanied by no more than a handful of people, over and above the bag carriers. Ideally, rather than a cast of hundreds, leaders should have at their sides a couple of advisors and a note-taker. It is before the summit that officials should do their work. In preparing the agenda and the papers, they can be as painstaking as they think appropriate. But during the meeting itself, they shouldn't just be in the background, they should be at home.

Even more numerous than advisors at summits are representatives of the world's media. The total runs into the thousands. They come because they are invited. A communiqué is published for their benefit. Indeed the meetings have always had as a subsidiary aim the attraction of favourable coverage. The leaders want to show the folk back home that they are doing something about the world's problems, never mind that the difficulties they face are mostly intractable. In any case, from the point of view of journalists, their leaders are rarely available. The summit provides an opportunity. That is why the questions at the press conferences often have nothing to do with the official business.

But I say, as my second reform, cut out the press. No press officers, no communiqués, no media invitations, no press facilities, no positions for television cameras, nothing. My fellow scribes will be shocked. But do we learn anything worthwhile at summit meetings? During the late 1970s and early 1980s I went to them every year. What takes place? We read the statements that are put out, we go to the press conferences and we hear the spin. But we don't really learn what happened and whose mind was changed. If, unusually, something important is decided, we never hear about it at the time; it emerges eventually at home as part of the political process.

My two proposals would together reduce the number officially attending from many thousands to less than 100. At the same time there would be a smaller requirement for support staff – cooks and bottlewashers and security men. From an organisational point of view, this would bring a great advantage. There can be much greater flexibility about where the meeting is held.

So my third recommendation is that the announcement of the summit should be brief and imprecise. It would state merely that the leaders of the eight industrialised nations would be meeting on, say, 20 to 22 July, 2001 in Italy. It would add that for security reasons, the venue would not be announced beforehand. Of course there would be rumours. Preparation for the leaders' arrival would be noticed. But nothing firm. This would have the supreme advantage that no protesting groups could form because they wouldn't know for certain where to assemble. Nobody would be killed or injured again.

Then, the summits could revert to their original purpose – a valuable fireside chat between eight leaders of large economies.