Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Media wars: Adminstration preemptive strike

This one slipped under the wire and will not be noticed in a storm of more glamorous events. I make note of it for future reference because I hear so much about how "the media" spins stories to suit certain agendas. In this case the manipulation of the media is clearly shown to be on the part of people in prominent positions of political power. Roger Harrabin got this little piece into the BBC somehow, clearly a case of too little, too late, but in time to make a footnote to what has become "yesterday's news."

Manipulating the climate message

What's in a name? A lot, according to the Chinese government. It forced President Bush to change the title of his recent international climate gathering from the "big emitters" conference to the "major economies" conference.

The apparently minor change reveals the exquisite sensitivity of global climate politics.
The US is keen to paint the Chinese as the world's future biggest polluter, but the Chinese reject the epithet because their emissions per person are about one-sixth of the average American. President Bush first mooted a conference of large emitters just before the G8+5 meeting in the summer. I understand that China was approached but refused to attend the meeting in Washington unless the name change was made.

The victory was notional because the world media continued to refer to the meeting at the end of September as the large emitters conference anyway.

Indeed, the American Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice took the opportunity to consolidate the message by welcoming India, China and Brazil as "equals" in the battle against climate change - an accolade they do not want. The original wording of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change signed in 1992 by President Bush senior refers to "common but differentiated responsibility" on emissions cuts, but this phrase has been shunned by his son.

The whole Washington climate conference was a triumph of US media management. The opening public statements were made by President Bush, Dr Rice and Jim Connaughton, the head of White House climate strategy.

The only foreigner to speak publicly was Yvo de Boer who, as a representative of the UN, remained neutrally uncritical of his hosts. The two-day meeting then went into closed session. Other delegates were furious at what they said were false leadership claims on climate by Mr Bush, but they were not given a platform to address the media.

When they emerged at the end of the conference on the Friday, they found that the co-ordinator, Mr Connaughton, had slipped out to brief the media half-an-hour before the end of the meeting, and the US TV networks had gone home. The conference did not receive widespread publicity in the US despite growing public concern about climate change. But those papers that did report it ran headlines like "Bush promises leadership on climate" although the Washington Post and New York Times did carry more critical messages down in the body of their articles.

"The White House slaughtered us," said one European delegate in search of the vanished American TV crews, "they absolutely slaughtered us". Some of Europe's delegations had actually planned to speak to the media, which is more than can be said for the large Chinese delegation.

At international climate meetings they are virtually invisible to the media. One Chinese diplomat ruefully told me: "We believe that we have a plan to reduce the growth in emissions and we are going to carry out that plan so that should be enough. "We are very naive about dealing with the way the rest of the world sees us." The BBC requested an interview for radio and TV with the Chinese head of delegation but he only agreed to an off-record background briefing.

Perhaps there is an opening for a large PR firm to advise the Chinese on how to conduct themselves in a world where diplomacy is often influenced by headlines and sound-bites. By far the best operator of climate spin is the White House's own Jim Connaughton - a brilliant lawyer. Perhaps China could offer to quadruple his salary - it would be money well spent.

H/T PR Watch

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