Anthony Hilton: World summits lose their way

There was a time when meetings of world leaders happened infrequently, had clear objectives and lasted until the business in hand was completed.

Anthony Hilton
Anthony Hilton

But that changed when they became annual events in the calendar, rather than one-offs to deal with a specific problem. This did not happen overnight, however. Though regular, they were still intimate enough in the early 1980s for journalists to jump in the lift with the world leaders and squeeze out a couple of questions between floors that - though it might seem astonishing today - the politicians would try to answer. At a Plaza Hotel meeting in New York, one colleague from the FT, having asked at reception where the meeting was, strolled into what he expected to be the press centre. He had walked unwittingly into the actual meeting room where the heads were doing business.

Unfortunately as the 1980s moved into the 1990s summits became ever more of a media circus. The journalists attended because world leaders were there, and world leaders attended because press were there.

It was too good a photo opportunity for either to miss. The event became the message.

Somewhere along the way both sides forgot the need to actually do something worthwhile, rather than simply appearing to do so. Hence the word from Whitehall that the sherpas to next week's meeting were instructed to find 'announcables' - things that could be unveiled to show it had achieved its goals.

Mind you, the PR aspect of the G20 meeting has been unduly prominent from the start. Not content with hyping what is achieved at the meeting itself, it was considered a good idea to hype having the meeting in the first place. The Central Office of Information put out an invitation to tender to the PR industry for the brief to promote the conference in advance.

The main purpose was to create public awareness in the G20, though part of the brief apparently was to create 'moments of drama for the media'. Unfortunately the contract was never awarded, so we will never know just what these might have been.

- Anthony Hilton is City commentator on London's Evening Standard.

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