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The road to "L"

Mark Mardell | 02:46 UK time, Monday, 6 April 2009

"Show me your 'L's' as you come through," barked an American official, as our small and excitedly exclusive party was marched at the double though the unlovely Czech building which has reached the high point of its career hosting the EU-US summit.

Perhaps we were near the pinnacle, too, about to meet the President of the United States. It had all started when a rumour was whispered that President Barack Obama wanted to meet the European press: one person per country, and Old Albion was to be represented by the Financial Times, rather than Her Majesty's BBC. Frantic phone calls were made, outrage expressed, old favours pulled. "Grab your equipment and ring this number," said a colleague, shoving a piece of paper in my hand and urging me and my incomparable cameraman Xav out of the door of the horrid cubicle that had been home for a couple of days.

We reached our first destination, which mundanely turned out to be the main press centre. We made first contact and were told to go into a corridor. Then we were told to go back again. We made a number of false starts, surging down a hallway, following people who only looked as if they were leading. Then we were given our badges. I was so proud. My badge was hexagonal, green and branded with an "L". "White House Press Pool: property of the US Government," it read.

These, I had learnt the night before are very important. When I met up with the BBC's North American editor, Justin Webb, I thought he was staring at my midriff, which has doubtless expanded still further since we last met in person. But he had another concern. "Not serious enough," he teased, pointing to my solitary lonely pass (EU2009CZ). He had a cornucopia of badges in a rainbow of colours. The one I envied the most was big, red and hexagonal.

I thought "the boys on the bus are all laughing at us", with the unfortunate effect that the line "rode down to ten to Venice again" resonated through my head the whole of the the next day. Before going to bed I secretly added my NATO pass from the previous day to my necklace... The next day I acquired two more, one of which was red, white and blue. It read: "President Barack Obama Speech in Prague: Hradcanske namesti."

Back in the press centre, we surged in the wrong direction a few times, as our party grew. Charlemagne, who is wise in the ways of Washington, smiled modestly as he effortlessly was given the precious "L" pass. So there were two, three or four Britishers, depending how you count the American FT correspondent, and Xav who is Flemish. The Germans had four, the French I think two. This is a timeless EU principle, on the lines of "some countries are more equal than others".

Then we were off. Scarcely 20 yards down the hallway before the serious but very young man with a white earpiece and a microphone up his sleeve shouted: "Up against the wall!" Although no firearms were in sight, we thought it wise to obey. Then, after another short delay, he led from behind, stewarding us at something of a trot. Not always in the right direction, not without false turns and dead ends, but with admirable enthusiasm and stern authority.

"Up against the poster." This command, at least, had novelty. Then a quick consultation into his sleeve and the urgency grew. I had images of the President of the United States, alone in a room, tapping his feet and looking at his watch.

We were surely nearing our destination when the demand for the "L" pass came. The Czech prime minister had said the US president's spending plans were "the road to hell", but the road to "L" turned out to be much more European, when we reached our destination.

No burning fire but, as in Huis Clos, "L" turned out to be other people trapped in a a very dull room for what felt like an eternity. All hacks know the feeling of being rushed into a news conference at breakneck, blood-pressuring speed, only to wait, and wait and wait. It is also an observable truth that the nicer a powerful politician seems, the more driven by fear, the more aggressive, are his or her staff. The ones you think must be really horrid have people working for them who laugh and joke and don't worry over-much about time.

Eventually, the big moment. Four politicians walked in and we were only really interested in one of them. The president of the European Commission, the Czech prime minister and the Swedish prime minister made statements without overly taxing anyone's shorthand, or indeed ability to write, or indeed to have remembered to bring a pen. Then the president. Not totally bland, but short of fascinating.

So, now a big moment, the chance to ask a question. If I had earned the favour of the spokesperson who I had been eyeballing with earnest persistence, would I go for a question on Iran or Turkey? Leave it to the moment. The moment turned out to be the Obama "usher", as he put his arm around the three lesser politicians and showed them from the room. We were left to find our own way back from L, boys.

But something lingers, even if it wasn't a unique broadcasting experience. My teenage son hasn't removed his wrist band from the excellent Belgium festival Rock Vechter even though nearly a year has passed. For today, at least, I shall wear my "L" pass under my shirt.


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