Summits are characterised by their choreography, with months of intensive preparatory work culminating in a short burst of very public, highly orchestrated activity.
Yet seldom will events remain under control. The government stood accused of stifling dissent on Thursday after two campaigning organisations with a history of attacking Gordon Brown found their accreditation for the event revoked.
The move brought claims that Downing Street was seeking to guarantee the summit’s success for the prime minister by preventing some of his more vocal critics from attending. Benedict Southworth, director of the World Development Movement, expressed his “outrage” at the “attempt to stage manage this event”. John Hilary, executive director of War on Want, accused the government of being “slightly oversensitive”.
The Foreign Office blamed “hugely oversubscribed” media accreditation for the withdrawal of the passes: “We have had to keep applications under constant review and take some difficult decisions.”
Sandwiched between a group photograph – repeated after one world leader went AWOL – a working breakfast and an elaborate lunch, Thursday’s formal “plenary sessions” of talks ran to less than three and three-quarter hours. With an estimated £19m ($28m) bill to the taxpayer for staging the event, that works out at £86,000 a minute.
Ministers urged voters to assess the summit on the substance of its proposals, rather than the diplomatic display. “We do have to stand back for a moment from the razzamatazz and bright lights and reflect what all this is about,” said Lord Mandelson, the business secretary.
The cohorts of foreign media descending on London for the day felt razzamatazz was in short supply. On the day Mr Brown hailed the emergence of a “new world order”, the representatives of the 22 countries being hosted by the prime minister appeared underwhelmed by their reception. “What a dump!” said an Italian correspondent, surveying a landscape of concrete, graffiti and building works in the grey Docklands dawn.
The media response stemmed partly from the officials’ determination to keep the journalists well away from the talks.
A pass system shielded each world leader and a handful of aides behind a fortified red zone; allowed other diplomatic delegates some freedom of movement within a blue zone; and corralled journalists in a vast echoing yellow zone. Movement from yellow to red was forbidden, yellow to blue scarcely easier.
Media controls are a feature of summits and, in more restrictive regimes, journalists can cover the event without catching a glimpse of a world leader. But reporters’ resentment at the paucity of information was fuelled by the UK decision to eschew the lavish hospitality that has marked many previous summits.
The government mounted an “austerity summit” in which many an expense appeared to have been spared.
The mood of the overseas press was not helped by the discovery that tabloid reports of the government lifting the smoking ban in the centre were wide of the mark.
Huddled in the cold outside, the journalists balefully discussed how soon they could escape back to the centre of the capital.
But the prime minister, flanked by flags and basking in the television lights at the end of the talks, seemed unable to tear himself away. Overriding aides’ warnings of “no more questions,” Mr Brown welcomed queries with enthusiasm, telling surprised reporters: “I’m glad you asked me that.”
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