A slightly surreal experience for a workaday hack today as I found myself in front of the TV cameras instead of trying to peer around them (an annoyingly regular consequence of my shortarse stature).
The occasion was the inaugural foreign media briefing of Latvian PM Valdis Dombrovskis. The PMs of neighbouring Estonia and Lithuania have media briefings every week, but this was a new phenomenon in Latvia.
There were a few strange undertones to proceedings. Most reporters were corralled into one corner before the entry of VD (er, so to speak). Upon his arrival, they were ‘presented’ in line in much the same way that Elizabeth von Saxe-Coburg Gotha works the line at a garden party enquiring whether the cucumber sandwiches are up to scratch.
Luckily I managed to escape being ‘presented’ (no, not even in the equine manner) and once seated found myself pretty close to the PM who has the gall to be a few months younger than myself.
He rattled off a quick summary of the situation in Latvia which might have been useful for anyone present who never bothered to read the local newspapers, watch local television or indeed talk to local people.
This started the alarm bells ringing as it suggested an assumption that we ‘foreigners’ couldn’t possibly know all this stuff already. Yet most of the ‘foreign’ reporters I saw around the table have been here for years, even decades. They have Latvian homes, Latvian families and most speak the Latvian language to a high standard. In fact they probably know more about Latvia and have travelled more widely in the country than a fairly large proportion of Latvians.
And why a press conference for ‘foreigners’ only (the aforementioned briefings in Estonia and Lithuania are open to all)? Not only is this likely to put the noses of local journos out of joint – with some justification – but the fact that those same local journos were manning the TV cameras filming the whole event suggests there was a large dose of publicity stunt involved.
So why should ‘PM talks to foreign media’ be a story of any interest at all?
The likely answer is that because of Latvia’s extraordinarily dire economic outlook, a lot of ‘foreigners’ who wouldn’t usually bother covering the country have done so in recent weeks. From the UK alone, the state-sponsored BBC has sent a stream of its roving reporters like Humphrey Hawksley and Mark Mardell (you have to have an alliterative name to work there) and Channel 4 sent someone without alliteration as well. Just check their blogs to see what they thought, though I won’t bother providing any links because they weren’t much good.
I’ve chatted to Swiss and Canadian journalists who were paying flying visits and colleagues (i.e. some of the other foreigners who actually live here permanently) have told me of their own encounters with Dutch, French and other hacks from big-title papers.
The world is interested in Latvia. But because the world only has about 50 lines to fill, the message generally ends up as “It’s a bit like what happened in Iceland and Hungary” or “If you think you’ve got it bad, check out Latvia.”
If today’s briefing was an attempt to correct that (mis)conception, unfortunately it was aimed at the wrong people. But if it was an attempt to show Latvians that the government is doing something about the nasty things those foreigners have been writing, perhaps it will serve some sort of purpose in a marginally underhand way.
Certainly part of the rationale of the event seems to be an effort on the part of the Latvian Institute to justify its existence and thus avoid the swinging axe that is chopping chunks out of most other areas of government.
For the record, Dombrovskis was rather good, particularly as the poor chap had to spend virtually the whole day sitting around various other conference tables giving answers.
He is a good speaker giving clear, simple and apparently honest responses even when the questions are stupid (as happened more than once). He fudged a couple of responses about the IMF but given the delicate stage at which negotiations are, that’s understandable.
And I liked it when he responded to my question about whether he still thought he had done the right thing in agreeing to be nominated as PM. Instead of playing it with a straight bat and saying “Yes, my country needs me and I am duty bound to answer the call blah blah…” he said “Only time will tell,” or words to that effect. It confirmed my theory that there is a dry sense of humour hidden behind that restrained facade.
Only time will tell if today’s event was the first of many media briefings or the first in a series of one, joining a long line of initiatives that get dreamed up, instigated and then forgotten about because no-one can be bothered to organise a second one.
I hope the briefings will continue – but in a format that is open to all “local” journalists – including the foreign ones.