Reading the G8 communique: did we win?

When the difference between "for example" and "including" means the world.

There are two ways to analyse a G8 communique. One is what you do in the minutes after it is issued, desperately scanning sentences, paragraphs, whole pages in seconds, your eyes alert for key words, trying to build an instant impression of whether they’ve pulled a fast one, whether things have come out better (don’t hold your breath) or worse (more like it) than you had expected. In these moments, the smallest things loom the largest, like the use of “for example” rather than “including” (the latter meaning that what follows it may actually happen, the former meaning that what follows was probably opposed by everyone around the table except the host). Communiques need this kind of fast and brutal scrutiny. Without it, the fleeting media spotlight might move on before genuinely significant downgrades (or even upgrades) in the text are spotted, and the chance to test leaders against their pre-summit intentions is left until nobody is listening.

The other way to analyse a communique is what you do later the same day, on a flight, or with a glass in hand, or sitting up in bed before you finally submit to sleep after days of summit madness. This one involves actually reading it.

The 2013 communique produced yesterday when the G8 wrapped up their meeting near Enniskillen, including the one-page "Lough Erne Declaration", is unusual in being worth a proper read. There is a thread running through it. It isn’t too long. And it has some passages that may be genuinely significant in mandating bold action in the months and years ahead.

Take the declaration, a list of ten sentences that, taken together, demand a pretty high standard of behaviour for G8 members from now on. Point four: “Developing countries should have the information and capacity to collect the taxes owed them – and other countries have a duty to help them.” It’s easy to find holes. The repeated use of “should” rather than the tougher “will”, for example, has not gone unnoticed. But picking such nits misses the big opportunity. Campaigners should take this declaration at face value, advertise it widely and throw it back at G8 leaders every time they fall short.

There are undoubtedly disappointments.

The biggest let-down is around the failure of the G8 as a whole to agree to compile information showing who actually benefits from the ownership of each company. If the G8 had agreed to do this and publish the results, they really would have put some rev in the transparency revolution. It now falls to the UK and France, who showed leadership, to drive a positive European approach on "beneficial ownership" through the European Union.

Another blow is the lack of new money to put behind positive words on agriculture, after David Cameron conceded early on that this would be a "leave your chequebook at home" summit. Nobody can argue with the call for funding to address Syria’s humanitarian emergency. But the $1.5bn raised in an afternoon for Syria happens to be about the same as the shortfall in the Global Agriculture and Food Security Programme that last year’s G8 promised to fill – a promise so far entirely undelivered.

However, elsewhere in the communique are tantalising signs of how far the tax and transparency debate has moved in the last year and the extent to which developing countries could benefit. The G8 makes clear that developing countries must be able to participate fully in the exchange of information needed for them to effectively collect the taxes they are due. The push for transparency in the extractives sector, so important for resource-rich developing countries, is buoyant after Canada pledged to match EU and US legislation in a pre-summit announcement. And the little-reported Open Data Charter has been agreed which could transform the way government information is presented and publicised, putting into citizens’ hands the means to hold their governments to account.

All of which means there is plenty of cause for encouragement from Lough Erne, and those who pushed this rock up the hill have something to show for their efforts. The Enough Food for Everyone IF campaign; the 342,219 ONE members who signed petitions calling on the G8 to fight malnutrition and unleash a transparency revolution; transparency champions from Africa and Asia who joined ONE on Saturday to tell the Prime Minister about the human impact of a lack of transparency; and the performers, volunteers and supporters who came together last week for ONE’s agit8 campaign: all have made their mark and added to a powerful new sense of momentum in the global fight against extreme poverty.

Then there is David Cameron’s role. He will have to take responsibility for where this summit fell short just as he should take credit for where it delivered. But he brought energy and a compelling and coherent idea to this G8 presidency and sold much of it to his counterparts. If activists hold leaders accountable for the commitments made, and those leaders show that they meant what they wrote, the Lough Erne communique may be key to the story of how extreme poverty was ended. That’ll be worth a read.

The G8. Photograph: Getty Images

Adrian Lovett is the Europe Executive Director of The ONE Campaign

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder