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Last Updated: Tuesday, 31 October 2006, 02:12 GMT
Digesting a report in record time
VIEWPOINT
By Sarah Mukherjee
BBC environment correspondent

The environmental community had talked of little else - off and on - for the last few weeks. The Stern report, the definitive guide to the economic effects of climate change, was due out in late October.

Sarah Mukherjee
Sarah Mukherjee waited patiently for a copy of the Stern report

Now, environment correspondents don't often find themselves at major events with the prime minister and chancellor in attendance, and therefore we do not find ourselves on the end of the spin machine.

But this was an object lesson in news management - and mismanagement.

We were told there would be absolutely, definitely, totally no leaks. No favours.

Which we - naively, as we subsequently found out - believed (you could hardly pick up a Sunday paper without extensive Stern coverage).

There would be a "lock-in" on Monday morning - two hours of mobile phone-free purdah, in which the "gentle people" of the press would attempt to digest the report (all 578 pages of it) before either rushing out of the building to broadcast to a grateful nation, or file a report to a grateful sub-editor.

It would start city breakfast-style, at 0800 GMT sharp, in the graceful buildings of the Royal Society in central London.

Waiting game

Now, even my rubbish maths is up to working-out that 120 minutes divided by 578 is ... Well, a lot of fast reading.

So there I was, ten to eight, with Andy Bell from ITN, waiting to run into the room, get my doorstep of a report and start digesting.

Time passed. A lady with a clipboard came to tell us that no-one from the Stern report had actually arrived.

More time passed. A man with a lot of boxes came in.

Then another man came to guide us (there were a few by then) to a lift. Where we waited some more.

Twenty-past eight, 100 minutes into 578 pages means.... How many seconds a page?

Carry two, divide by three - it wasn't looking good.

Another lady came to take our phones off us, lest we phoned our news desk with exciting snippets about low-carbon infrastructure in developing countries (page 449, in case you were wondering).

Sir Nicholas Stern: AFP image
The Stern report, a guide to the economic effects of climate change

Half past eight. The Stern reports had arrived!

Unfortunately, there were only five of them. And 10 journalists.

Five reports into 10 journalists makes a lot of shouting. More reports were hastily found.

Twenty-to-nine. Eighty minutes into 578 pages makes... minus seven seconds a page - that cannot be right - can it?

We started reading. It might have been a city breakfast time, but unfortunately without the city breakfast.

There was, mercifully, some coffee ("I'll have three, please", said my colleague Russell Hayes).

Seventy minutes into 578... It had started to become like one of those revision timetables you do before exams.

You take so much time writing the timetable, you leave yourself no time for the revision.

And that was not taking into account the full and frank discussions with the Stern review team.

We could not, we were told, file our reports before 1030 GMT - although we had been told beforehand we could start reporting at 1000 GMT.

Question and answer session

Now that might not sound like a big difference, but if you are with a news agency, it is like that trainers ad - first is everything, second is nowhere.

If we left the building, we were told, we could not return for the question and answer session with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

"But Nicholas Stern has just broken his own embargo on the Today programme," shouted one furious press agency journalist.

"Are you telling me that at ten o' clock, we will be the only people in the country unable to talk about this (expletive deleted) report?"

By now mutinous journalists left their contemplation of the Mendelsohn model (page 147) to engage in a vigorous argument with the Stern review team about the nature of the word "embargo".

This resulted in something of an angry stalemate and as the chances of reading this thing to the end in the time available began to melt away like Dali's clock, a mood of rebellious hilarity began to take over.

We began to feel, (ironically, given the subject matter) like airline passengers - parked for hours in a large room with no information and only a boring book for entertainment.

Journalists slipped away from their minders and started hunting, increasingly frantically (and with a lot more shouting), for the lady with the phones
Sarah Mukherjee

At nine-thirty-five, we were allowed to go to the loo - in a "controlled fashion" (that referred, I hope, to the numbers allowed out at any one time).

Too late. Journalists slipped away from their minders and started hunting, increasingly frantically (and with a lot more shouting), for the lady with the phones.

The moments of freedom did not last long, though, as we were herded back together for the Blair/Brown/Stern speeches and what we were told was a question and answer session. (We did get our phones, though.)

It was, according to one colleague, "one of the hardest listens of my life".

As the speaker tag team continued with international co-operation targets and commission announcements, I began to feel like I was having a sonic hole drilled in my forehead.

But it would be worth it, to get a question in to the Chancellor - an opportunity rarely, if ever, given to environment journalists.

As last. Speeches over.

The questions. "We will not be taking questions from the press..."

Spun? More like boil washed - and hung out to dry.




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