Covering the G7 in Japan, from a TV monitor 20 miles away

Senior world affairs producer, BBC News

Last week, I was at the G7 summit in Ise Shima, Japan. Except that, in truth, I wasn’t really there at all.

Because nowadays the organisers of major international gatherings such as the G7 and G20 do all they can to keep journalists far away from the men and women at the centre of the action – the ‘principals’ as they’re known in diplomatic parlance.

Most of the world’s press corps covered the G7 in Japan without ever having been in the same town as most of the leaders, let alone the same room. As is now the norm, they followed the proceedings on TV monitors. Transcripts of official statements and news conferences were distributed by email.

Indeed, the detailed preparatory work carried out in advance of these summits by officials and civil servants – termed ‘sherpas’ – means that leaked drafts of the closing communiqués usually begin circulating almost as soon as the leaders sit down for their first working session. 

From Lough Erne to Cannes, St Petersburg to Schloss Elmau, the media arrangements for these annual jamborees follow a predictable pattern. The template is always broadly the same. Only the location changes.

On the eve of a summit, the principals land at the nearest international airport on a chartered jet. Live cameras film the ‘arrivals’ as world leaders descend awkwardly from their plane. They shake hands with local dignitaries and perhaps receive a bouquet of flowers from flag-waving children before they’re whisked off by motorcade or helicopter to an exclusive golf resort, castle or spa hotel.   

Once the meetings get under way there’s a series of highly choreographed photo opportunities, which punctuate the discussions behind closed doors. These are designed to give the world’s media a steady stream of fresh video and photographs to illustrate their news reports.

There’s usually a walkabout or two, framed by a picturesque backdrop, showing off the host country in its most attractive light.

In Japan, the setting was the serene Ise Jingu shrine, the most revered site in the Shinto religion.

Then there are the ‘tour de tables’ – brief interludes of smiles and small talk at the start of a working lunch or dinner, before the photographers and camera crews are ushered rapidly out of the room.

And of course, no summit would be complete without the obligatory ‘family photo’, where Barack Obama, David Cameron and the rest stand side by side on a podium, feigning bonhomie while the flashbulbs pop and the cameras roll. 

But what most news audiences back home probably don’t realise is the physical distance separating the world leaders from the thousands of journalists sent to cover the talks.

In the case of the G7 in Japan, the principals met in seclusion at the luxurious Shima Kanko Hotel on Kashiko Island.

Meanwhile, the press were locked down in a massive temporary media centre (above and top image) at a sports arena almost 20 miles away.  Journalists who had travelled from London, Washington, Paris, Ottawa and elsewhere watched their heads of government grip and grin for the cameras on monitors showing identical pictures, pumped out to TV stations and news agencies worldwide on a single ‘pool’ video feed, made available by the official host broadcaster.

The only time many journalists came face to face with their heads of government was when they were escorted on official shuttle buses to hotels almost an hour’s drive south of the media centre for the televised closing news conferences. 

So why be there at all? Now that the host broadcast feeds are streamed online, a journalist could arguably follow events just as effectively from thousands of miles away on a laptop, tablet or smartphone at their office or kitchen table.

Needless to say, the cost of covering these summits is significant. So when foreign news budgets are tighter than ever, and access to those we’re supposed to be reporting on becomes ever more limited, is it any wonder that some news organisations are wondering whether it’s worth sending teams to cover these highly stage-managed events at all?  


The Academy’s other blogs by Stuart Hughes

Foreign assignments: Andrew Harding

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