The stage could hardly have been better dressed for the G8 summit.
The actors – Putin stage left, Bush stage right, Blair refining his epilogue in the wings – were in great voice. The audience, boat-borne and placard-waving, was boisterous. And the pyrotechnics were set – with Moscow’s intercontinental missile stage left and the US’s ‘son of Star Wars’stage right.
Like critics gathered for the first night of a new musical, the media were chewing their pens in anticipation.
Bush’s aides had been quick to kill off any hopes of an environmental breakthrough before the first dignitary even hit the lawn, leaving only the Telegraph bold enough to give the story front-page space on Thursday.
The Independent jumped the gun, claiming that Bush had ‘dashed Blair’s hopes”, and that the embattled PM was preparing a ‘tactical retreat”. Wheeling out the standard NGO press releases, the paper missed the subtlety of the graphical double-page spreads in The Guardian and Telegraph, which not only realised that anarchists dressed as clowns make better photos than world leaders in suits, but also detected the subtle undercurrents of the summit – the pressure on Bush was mounting, and he wasn’t expecting it.
The Times – in what was either lateral thinking or confusion – gave Camilla Cavendish free reign to expound on the intricacies of carbon trading, and then fretted over business opportunities in Putin’s Russia in its supplement.
By Friday, no one was sure quite what had happened, least of all the newsrooms. In haste to catch up, The Independent was on the stands with a less dismissive headline. ‘Deal or Raw Deal?”, it asked, underneath a photo of a smiling Bush and a demure Blair. Bush had given ground, the paper admitted, but refused to commit to a substantial target.
The Telegraph again gave the summit cover space, but progressively changed its editorial tone from front-page praise for a ‘dramatic change”, to a more guarded inside spread claiming that Bush had got what he wanted, and finally a comment piece which derided the lack of progress.
The Times jumped too soon, slipped, and was left foundering alone in the murky waters of praise, hailing ‘The Baltic Pact’on a triumphal front page as offering ‘substantial cuts’in greenhouse gas emissions.
The Guardian, which by this stage of its BAE exclusive must have had a constant stream of lawyers pacing Farringdon Road, still found space for a measured analysis of what it saw as an agreement ‘with strings attached”, and a well-chosen comment by political editor Patrick Wintour.
By Saturday, Bob Geldof’s impassioned back-to-back media interviews had given everyone plenty of copy to deal with. The Independent gave a double-page spread to the G8’s broken aid promises, a half page to the Blair-Putin relationship, and a damning editorial which saw the summit as a success ‘only in avoiding outright failure”.
The Guardian restricted itself to a proprietary comment, asking simply: ‘What changed?’Despite a usually sceptical stance, the editors seemed in buoyant mood, perceiving a ‘real shift’on climate change and even quoting Marx in their call to arms. The Telegraph continued its thorough coverage with a generous sprinkling of Bono quotes, a vignette of the Blair-Putin struggle, and – uniquely – a perspective on India and China’s reception of the summit.
Making amends for some previous patchy reporting, The Times indulged in a well-set-out spread analysing the outcomes of the summit by theme, then the contributions to the summit by leader. Bizarrely however, the paper’s comment writers appeared to have been among the very few who had entirely missed the Geldof/Bono outpourings and went on to brazenly congratulate the G8 on creating a ‘nuanced and businesslike’scheme for Africa.
By Sunday, all the papers were upbeat. Even the Independent on Sunday begrudgingly concluded: ‘Progress made; must do better.’The media circus had wanted drama, found it, and pulled through. But environmentalists and human rights campaigners were left fearing that there is still a very, very long way to go.