It’s The Little Ones You’ve Got To Watch

Experience can give a journalist some sort of intuition about what is likely to constitute an interesting news story, but frequently one can still be surprised about which stories disappear in a puff of smoke and which develop Methuzelean longevity.

An example of the latter seems to be taking place at the moment with a little story I put out to very little fanfare last week. Like some crude but game Mexican boxer it has refused to lie down even though there are plenty of harder-hitting stories on the bill.

I attended a luncheon hosted by the American Chamber of Commerce in Latvia. I was not myself partaking of the victuals, but the AmCham folks do at least show some consideration to members of the Fourth Estate by allowing us to sit on half a dozen seats at the back of the room while the headline speech takes place, after which we are politely ushered aside to let the members tuck into their burgers, gumbo, grits and meat loaf, or whatever is served at AmCham luncheons. For reasons just explained, I’ve never found out what’s on the menu.

On this occassion, half a dozen press seats was four too many, as only myself and a journo from the LETA news agency had shown up – surprising in one regard as the speaker was prime minister Valdis Dombrovskis, but probably explained by the fact that most hacks were staking out the parliament where a trial foreign policy debate was being held.

I attended the AmCham for two reasons. First, I have always found their events to be rather interesting and forthright, particularly in comparison with some of the other chambers of commerce which have a high proportion of braying bores among their members. But in all honesty the main reason I went was because the venue was about 30 seconds’ walk from my office and I didn’t wat to sit on my arse (or in this case ‘ass’) all day.

Domby seemed in pretty good form, actually. He’s a much more relaxed speaker than he used to be and is no longer scared to throw in a couple of lighthearted asides and jokes along the way. They may not be absolute rip-snorters but they signal a man much less worried than he used to be about appearing to know every fact under the sun, and his voice does at least modulate a little now instead of remaining in monotone.

He began  in standard fashion with an account of how the economy is picking up, displaying his usual powers of recall. But then he struck a new note, referring to the European Commission and IMF as “unpredictable” in negotiations over the 2011 budget. It was said in a fairly lighthearted manner but was by no means sarcastic. It made my ears prick up and I noted the time at which it had occurred on my dictaphone recording.

Domby rattled through a few more interesting themes – the fact that banks are happy to lend to each other but not to ordinary people, and that plans for a fiscal responsibility law are apparently being revived after being quietly shelved in the run-up to the last election.

But then it was question and answer time, in which the AmCham members again showed themselves to be a bit more astute than others in posing direct and often quite difficult questions.

In response to one of these, Dombrovskis again slid into his IMF riff and repeated the phrase “unpredictable partners.” If he had said it once I probably wouldn’t have bothered writing anything, but twice suggested one of two things: either he was genuinely bugged by what was happening in negotiations or he was making an effort to get the phrase out there, in which case I was happy to oblige.

So I duly did a little piece that got slightly mangled in the editing process but did at least keep the key quotes intact. It appeared on the main dpa newswire and was soon overtaken by events in Egypt and elsewhere having apparently contributed little more than zero to the world’s news agenda.

But then local press (including, curiously, LETA) picked it up and used the quotes I had reported as the core of their own stories about Domby calling out the IMF. The opposition political party Saskanas Centrs sent a link to the story out on their Facebook feed, then the excellent current affairs magazine Ir ran a story along similar lines on their website.

This insignificant little story was proving to be rather pugnacious.

A few days later I almost choked on my kotletes when I saw my quotes displayed in large letters on TV, followed by Augusts Brigmanis, a senior figure within the ruling coalition yakking about how great it was that Domby was telling it like it is where the IMF is concerned. On the basis of those comments, Brigmanis said, his Greens and Lembergs Farmers’ Union would not support any more budget cuts. The IMF says an additional 50 million lats needs to be trimmed.

LNT gets a nice graphic out of a boring quote

And the story is still flitting around cyberspace, refusing to do the decent thing and disappear, mainly because poor old Domby went down with a nasty case of the flu immediately after his speech and has been incognito for a few days.

So it was a strange combination of events that created probably my biggest story of the year out of what was really a non-event. It depended upon four coincidences:

a) nobody else bothered to go to the AmCham event
b) the foreign policy debate was a dud
c) there wasn’t much else happening
d) Domby fell ill so could not come out with clarification/counter argument

While it’s quite nice to see a story disseminated widely, I now rather hope that Dombrovskis gets out his shotgun and blasts it. If he wanted to see a story like that printed, it has served its purpose (and maybe a bit more) in showing the IMF he is not going to be a pushover.

And the fact that he fell ill put me into a state of real anxiety. The latest round of flu has been claiming quite a few lives in Latvia, including those of young men one would expect to be healthy. The thought of Domby succumbing to the virus and leaving the country in a fix is a genuinely terrifying one as I cannot see anyone else capable of holding things together.

The Vienotiba election slogan was “Dombrovskis must continue to work” and now it seems more imperative than ever.

Get well soon, Domby.

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