Diplomatic Correspondent for BBC News, James Landale, discusses the mood at the latest summit in Biarritz
“So, what’s the mood there at the summit?” The question was hardly unexpected but I sighed nonetheless. The familiar inquiry by editors and presenters alike had long frustrated me. They, of course, wanted to know what they could not glean from watching a television monitor in London: what were people saying on the ground; what was the private gossip, the inside track? And they were right: that is one reason why I was sent across the world at the expense of the licence fee payer to attend this gathering of the global great and good. And yet what was the mood? A party can have a mood. A conference can have a mood. But can a modern, international summit really be said to have a mood?
I am writing this from the coastal resort town of Biarritz in south west Francewhere President Macron is hosting the G7 leaders for their annual get-together. I am sitting in a small cubicle in what looks like a large aircraft-hanger, squeezed in with all the other broadcast journalists amid a sea of electronic spaghetti, editing equipment and TV screens. Next door is another huge hall containing row after row of desks where hundreds of writing journalists are tapping furiously at their laptops. The British press pack are watching the cricket discreetly on their phones. To one side is a long, raised platform where the television correspondents are plugged into their cameras, the hot, bright lights bringing a sheen to their brows as they jabber and gesticulate round the clock. Hovering along the aisles are an army of young men and women, some wearing supposedly ‘national dress’ such as berets and stripy jumpers, who are there to help the media but cannot, because they know nothing and we are in the information business. Outside in the foyer is a celebration of French ‘culture,’ largely in the form of cheese and cured meat. Round the corner is an enormous canteen where coffee and petit fourscan be found at any hour of day. The entire building is parked on the edge of a soulless industrial park, a temporary fortress surrounded by a phalanx of police and security fences, accessed only with a necklace of photographic accreditation that gets checked at every step.
This, for me, is my G7. So I can tell you the mood there in the press centre. I can tell you if the hacks are frustrated at the lack of a story or delighted by the quality of the catering. But is that the mood of the summit?
The actual summit itself is happening a few miles away on the seafront, an even more secure compound of hotels and public buildings that have been sealed off from the real world. The beach is empty apart from the occasional police horse. Naval boats patrol the waters. Holidaymakers who would normally be thronging the shore have been banished, leaving disgruntled shop keepers and restaurateurs ruing the loss of trade. I come to this inner sanctum only at the end of the G7, the moment when the politicians allow the journalists in to attend the end-of-summit press conferences. But most of the time I have no idea of the mood of the meetings there because they are being held in private and they are not open to the press. I am not even lingering outside the doors to gossip with the leaders’ staff and the handfuls of diplomats brought along to help out.
So my perspective of the summit is from the pooled television pictures that record the politicians getting out of their vehicles, that show the awkward handshakes, the opening remarks, the responses to the shouted questions of the news agency reporters. I read the body language of the leaders as they gather for the bilateral meetings, their group plenary sessions and what we still insist on calling the ‘family photo’, gleaning what inferences I can from who chats to whom, who attracts attention and who is left alone. I read the tweets of the leaders and their ambassadors, I parse the official statements issued by the summit secretariat, I scan the steady flow of press releases from inside and without. I read and watch the interviews the politicians give to their own national media. I read and watch what other media are saying about the summit. And of course, I text and chat to my contacts who may or may not tell me what is really going on, depending on their mood, lack of sleep and alcohol intake. And amid all this, I broadcast, broadcast, broadcast, feeding the hungry BBC machine with news, such that it is.
So, what is the mood of the summit? If such a thing does exist, it is not there in the press centre or in the conference hotel or in any geographic location. It has its presence in the ether, the sum of the images, words and tweets generated by the leaders and the media. One afternoon in Biarritz there was a real mood of excitement, prompted by the mysterious arrival of Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif. Why was he here? What was President Macron up to? How would the Americans react? Journalists and diplomats alike were buzzing with curiosity. But for much of the summit, there was no ‘mood’. The players played their parts: the leaders talked and pronounced, the media reported their words, the police looked bored and the staff made sure the food did not run out.
There is much debate about the value of the G7. To its critics, the club has an outdated feel, a reflection of the balance of power from another era, defined as much by which countries are excluded as by the members themselves. Some point, too, to the artificiality of the event, the stage management and pre-cooked announcements, the huge costs and disruption to local people.
Others believe the G7 still has value, a rare chance for leaders of some of the world’s most powerful economies to get together and actually chew the fat face-to-face and privately, to have the kind of meaningful discussion impossible in larger groups.
The summits certainly provide a focal point for the governments involved, a process that forces administrations to come to a judgement on issues, deciding what their heads of government are going to say to their counterparts on the key issues of the day. To that extent, the G7 still has a purpose.
Just do not ask me what the mood is on the ground.