Category: Archive

Media decry lack of forum access

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Stephen McKinley

Sunday’s debate on the future of the Northern Ireland political process at the World Economic Forum in New York collapsed into complete chaos — at least as far as the media were concerned.

Several Irish journalists attempted to cover the well-publicized conference, chaired by former Northern Ireland peace negotiator George Mitchell and attended by Northern Ireland First Minister David Trimble, Deputy First Minister Mark Durkan, Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, and Progressive Unionist Party leader David Ervine.

Instead, the reporters were thwarted by confusing mixed messages from conference media staff, and an unexpected change of plan at the last minute. The journalists’ verdict was scathing — a mixture of incompetence and contempt for the press.

The Northern Ireland conference was scheduled to be broadcast by a live video link from the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel to a media room set up in the Intercontinental Hotel next door.

Instead, just as the journalists were preparing to watch proceedings on screen at the Intercontinental, the screening was cancelled. “Will not be shown,” flashed up on the blue screen.

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“The Northern Ireland debate was listed as one that would be broadcast, right up to 10 minutes before it was to start at 2 p.m.,” said Conor O’Clery, international business correspondent for the Irish Times. “Then they switched it. It was absolutely outrageous. It shows a contempt for working journalists with deadlines.”

One journalist from the Press Association suggested watching the proceedings on a video link that the BBC might have in its suite of rooms on the fifth floor of the Intercontinental. They raced through the lobby of the hotel, crowded into an elevator, rushed down some gilded corridors, but on the fifth floor there was no joy. The BBC were unable to get the conference live either.

“It’s a fringe event,” said BBC Northern Ireland correspondent Mark Simpson, shrugging his shoulders. “It’s a fringe event,” he repeated, meaning that in the world of the Waldorf, a Northern Ireland conference carried less weight than that of delegates with the magnitude of George Soros or Bill Clinton or Bono.

“We’ll just have to write the farce story,” said a Belfast Telegraph reporter.

As time wore on and deadlines loomed, a message was received suggesting that if the journalists made their to the Waldorf’s lobby, they might gain access to the conference, now well under way. Somewhere behind the banks of monitors, security heavies and menacing optical scanners, the words of the cream of Northern Ireland’s politicians were going uncovered. Gerry Adams, as was reported later, was suggesting that Irish nationalists could not pursue a path of “mathematical majoritarianism” against Unionists, which David Trimble was calling “significant.”

A foray was made to the Waldorf, where some of the Irish journalists were scanned, prodded, poked, glowered at, and, finally, admitted into the conference.

Their arrival was memorably recorded in Monday’s New York Times by Jim Dwyer, in an account of the Northern Ireland conference.

“Halfway through the session, a group of Irish journalists charged into the room, highlighting the difficulties reporters from around the world have had in covering the private gathering,” Dwyer wrote.

O’Clery agreed vehemently. “All the seminars were closed to the press apart from the A-class journalists from the New York Times,” he said. “You had to rely on what you could read in the Times, and what the conference organizers gave us. We were getting controlled news.”

At the WEF’s media center in the Intercontinental Hotel, an official said that “we have turned away hundreds of journalists this week already,” suggesting that inaccess for the press was routine.

At the start of the conference, O’Clery said, he had arrived before 9 a.m. last Thursday to pick up his press credentials. “It was 10:45 before I got into the hotel,” he said. “We were standing in a wet street all that time. Only two people were giving out accreditation.”

The Irish consulate declined the comment. An official from the British consulate who asked not to be named, said, “It was pretty much of a mess. I heard one [Irish] journalist saying [to WEF staff] ‘you’ve treated us appallingly.’ ”

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