a weekly blog for all interested in professional communications issues

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The summit that left a foul odor

Monday morning's papers were all over the map on whether the summit was a success or not, just as the police response to protesters was reported as either measured or over-aggressive depending on who was being quoted.

Chances are, if you believed international summit meetings productive, you probably continued to believe the same Monday morning. Conversely, anyone who questioned the usefulness of these events before the weekend likely hasn't changed their opinion either.

Canadians remain ambivalent about summits and media coverage reflects that.

Ironically, Prime Minister Stephen Harper can rightly claim victory because the 20 developed nations agreed to his proposal of a commitment to cut their government deficits in half by 2013. This agreement is all the more remarkable since U.S. President Barack Obama was pushing for continued economic stimulus.

Harper's win was part of the weekend's media coverage. But it was over shadowed -- at least in Canada -- by protester violence, 900 arrests, and a $1-billion price tag for security. As The Toronto Star noted in a deadline: "Arrests, tear gas outweigh glory."

In contrast, Harper took top billing over Obama in Sunday's New York Times. The Times coverage, which only mentions the protests in passing, made it clear Harper was able to get the upper hand behind the scenes and Obama had to back track and go along with the deficit reduction plan.

This may be the first time in U.S. media that an American president was portrayed as a subordinate player to a Canadian prime minister.

Harper likely wishes today that the G20 summit had been held in an isolated location. The protesters have muddied the narrative the Tories were looking for in advance of an election. And unfortunately for Harper, the Tim Horton's crowd doesn't usually read The New York Times.

One thing not lost in the fray is the odious aftermath of summit security. No doubt there will be continued demands for an inquiry to find out why police arrested so many -- almost twice those held under the War Measures Act in 1970.

Joggers, bystanders and even tourists were scooped up in a giant police dragnet. There were also a disturbing number of reports of journalists being detained or even roughed up.

Toronto Mayor David Miller is fortunate he was already announced he will not seek re-election. Otherwise, his hast defence of police actions would likely come back to haunt him.

Even the Toronto police were smart enough Monday to acknowledge that innocent people may have been held by accident as officers worked to restore order and protect the city from further destruction.

In fairness, it shouldn't be surprising that people's rights suffered while police had to work frantically to put down a major riot. But it is reasonable to wonder if police weren't taking out their frustrations on the public after losing control on the streets on Saturday.

The images of what happened in Toronto this past weekend will likely be remembered by Canadians long after Harper's summit accomplishments are forgotten.

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