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Saturday, 4 April 2009

Observations from Inside the G20 Summit

While the black and silver limousine convoys were driving up to the Excel Centre to deliver their important cargo of world leaders to the London Summit, I noticed, riding along in the media bus, a white vehicle with TEAPOT 1 written on the front. On its side, the words 'catering van' were written.

Once off the bus, we were delivered into the security checkpoint with fairly friendly armed police asking us to divest ourselves of metal (watches, bracelets) and coats as we went through the detectors.

Inside the media centre, the serried ranks of international journalists were divided into print and broadcast; print sitting with their laptops at long tables divided by country, the television crews up on a wooden platform overlooking them, and little radio studio booths behind the TV area. I put my coat in one of the many free lockers. In the one information point, two or three Foreign and Commonwealth Office press officials were looking harassed.

Up on the screens, information was being displayed about various briefings due later on in the day along with footage from inside the plenaries. I needed information about certain countries, so the FCO official pointed me to an enclosed area where the delegations were supposed to be represented so I could go and find out more. I went in, and there on desks with phones were country placards; Brazil, European Commission, Republic of Indonesia, etc, computers and photocopiers. But no delegation personnel. I hurried back to the information point. They only seemed to know for sure about a Gordon Brown press briefing scheduled for 3.30pm GMT, and told us to ring the embassies to find out about any others. They did tell me that the Russians were holding one, but it was only open to the Russian press.

In the food area, sandwiches, flavoured yoghurts, soft drinks, tea, coffee and that journalist staple, crisps, were available, all free. British Business Secretary Peter Mandelson was moving around cheerfully, giving interviews, chatting and laughing. At one point he helped himself to a cup of tea and came and sat with some men he knew in the cafe area. The whole arena had a curiously safe atmosphere, the British politicians who visited seemed relaxed; when Mandelson was giving back-to back TV interviews around lunchtime his shiny red box was leaning casually by a wooden frame, unwatched. But then, the only folk around were known media, security, service providers, delegates and officials.

Eventually, the FCO guys gave us a printout of some briefings which they thought were actually happening, starting with Gordon Brown. Obama was due to speak at 5.45pm GMT, but no-one could tell us if that conference was going to be open or closed. In between Gordon Brown and Obama two others were scheduled, so I planned to attend the first, and remain in the room - until Obama would show up - in order to guarantee my place.

Looking at the schedule, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was due to speak at the same time as the US President in another, smaller room at 5.30pm . I told the FCO that this would be a clash, and those of us who wanted to listen to both would be faced with a hard choice, so he called the Indian Liaison Officer, Nitin, who arrived with a walkie-talkie and no further information. Eventually, the Indian Briefing was moved... to 5.45pm.

Meanwhile, the only folk who had arrived in the area set aside for international delegations were journalists using the computers who looked up at me guiltily when I came in. I composed myself, wandered outside to the river where some smokers and a few others were grabbing some sunshine, then I joined the queue for the British Prime Minister's briefing. A Swedish reporter who was behind me casually crept forward until he was parallel with me, and when we came to a corner he actually managed to slip in ahead of me. It's every man for himself at these events and the media didn't seem to have too much concern for the host country's predilection for politely standing in line.

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