Less than you think, says Paul Taylor of Reuters who compares covering a summit to coaching a football team…………..
The world’s largest press corps is in Brussels. Some one thousand plus correspondents roam the capital of the Belgian Federation, better known for language quarrels between French speaking Walloons and Dutch speaking Flemish than international news, were it not for the presence in Brussels of not only the European Union, but also NATO.
The United Nations is of course piggy-backing on the success of the EU which is the main attraction for the one thousand plus press corps in Brussels. Next door to the Justus Lipsius building at 155 Rue de la Loi – appropriately “Law Street”, we at UNRIC watch the Chiracs, Merkels and Blairs arrive and depart from our offices in the so-called Residence Palace, which is actually neither a residence nor a palace but home to Brussel´s International Press Centre.
For ordinary citizens the EU Summit 8-9 March was no different from any other such event. A summit means closed metro stations, the noise of helicopters and disruption of traffic due to the presence of the twenty-seven leaders’ motorcades.
This time everyone agreed that the most important issue on the agenda was climate change.
For Paul Taylor, European Editor of Reuters, a summit is a different story. It is one of the biggest events of the year in Europe and the size of the press corps increases dramatically when the twenty-seven heads of states and governments assemble for the European Summit.
He says that covering a summit is like a football match. “My job is like being a coach; we have to mark spaces, mark men and most important issues. It´s a matrix”.
One of the priorities is to try to get hold of key documents in advance, for example the first annotated agenda. For this purpose the reporters stay in close touch with diplomats, and it certainly helps that Reuters’ staff speak nine out of the twenty-five official languages.
The leaders are accompanied by ministers and diplomats, so obviously there are a lot of possible “targets” for the ever-hungry press. The meetings of the leaders are mostly closed to the press, and journalists are only allowed to enter parts of the summit venue in the Justus Lipsius building.
The preparation starts up to four days before the summit. Traditionally the leaders meet with their respective political groups ahead of the summit and at these meetings reporters “mark” those meeting places. Just as important is to cover the arrival of leaders and their possible comments on entering the venue.
In addition to reporters at the summit, journalists at the Reuters office watch the beginning of the meeting which is carried live on a European TV channel. The competition among news agencies is cut-throat and Reuter’s clients are “decision makers, governments and the public. Every second counts”, says Taylor.
Taylor´s team covers not only the leaders but also spokespersons and diplomats in the search for quotes. “Even before the summit starts we are on update number five. Good preparation is crucial. We have pre-written as much as possible. We add 2-3 sentences and quotes and the story is there. It is very important not to start from scratch. Correct spellings of possible sources and exact titles are checked beforehand.”
Just like in a football match it is important to “mark” people closely and some are of more use to the press than others.
“We target the little people”, Mr. Taylor says, adding that no slight is intended. “The smaller nations often do not bear national grudges and there is less spin. The Nordics also have a tradition of openness and respect for the right to information”.
Other “little people” are the Poles, the Czechs, the Irish and the Estonians, but targets can vary from time to time. At different moments Turkey, Cyprus (EU enlargement) and the Netherlands (constitution referendum) have been the focus of attention.
Modern technology has made a reporter’s life easier. Not only are the reporters equipped with cell phones and blackberries but so are their “targets”.
The so-called listening room, where aides have the possibility to follow the leader’s debate, is a vital place to “mark”, and sometimes a cooperative source sends the all important sms: “breakthrough”, “package agreed.”
Once an independent source confirms, the story is out on the wire in seconds.
The first day of the two-day EU Summit ends with the leaders´ dinner, but meanwhile almost all other participants assemble in the Euro Council canteen – even some very senior policy makers. They are marked and targeted: “It´s important to put your tray next to theirs”.
The second day starts with the leaders’ breakfast.
“Again, we mark spaces, mark doors, mark targets and especially the VIP exits and entry”.
Co-coordination is essential, and several reporters pool their sources. Some journalists cover the leaders others the issues. Mr. Taylor´s notebook from that day reads, “who talks when leaving the hotel, when are they arriving? We also have to have the sidebars such as stories about security and demonstrations. The checklist goes like this: which stories, which leaders, which countries. Put the quotes in a common basket, accessible to all.”
The second day of the Summit, “the second half”, starts early since aides have been going through the comments and statements made by the leaders made during the first day and outline a consensus – the final draft.
“The final drafts start to circulate at 6-6.30 pm. We try to pre-arrange access with friendly delegations and have it on the wires by 7.00pm”
The final draft proved to be historic, and when the twenty-seven leaders were about to bid farewell to Brussels at two seconds before nine minutes past six, Reuter’s ninth update with contributions from nine reporters was sent to its clients with the headline: “EU challenges world with climate change plan.”
But it was one of the details in the leaders´ declaration that had the biggest immediate impact: The death knell for the traditional light bulb.
Within minutes, possibly seconds, after Reuters reported the story, their financial team reported that the news had already had an impact on the shares of companies concerned by this radical decision.
News is money.
EU officials were celebrating. As the summit bandwagon rolled out of town, someone was heard to shout: "Will the last one here please turn out the lights?"