Delegates still sped to day one behind blacked-out windows, but the secretive conference is attracting unprecedented attention
Watford, sunny Watford, has changed the hitherto secretive Bilderberg conference forever. In a freshly strimmed corner of the grounds of the Grove Hotel, half a mile from the most important international policy conference in the world, something remarkable happened: the mainstream press showed up. In droves.
Reuters, AP, Channel 4 News, the Times, the Telegraph, the Press Association, London Tonight. The BBC had at least three radio reporters here.
While they talked and reported, on the first day of the four-day event, politicians and businessmen sped past behind blacked-out windows: the guest list, published for the first time, includes George Osborne, Ed Balls, the founder of Amazon, chairman of Google and the chief executives of both BP and Shell.
Sky News did a live link-up with the former Labour minister Michael Meacher and it was a big, serious interview. “This is totally in contradiction to the government’s commitment to greater transparency,” he declared.
In interviews elsewhere he described the attendees as holding “most dominant positions in the governance of western capitalism” who “only meet in order to concert their plans about the future of capitalism over the immediate future period – the next year or two”.
And that was that. A politician, standing in a press zone, doing a live interview with a national news channel. That happened outside a Bilderberg conference, where 130 or so of the world’s elite hang out in unminuted, private meetings with 400 or 500 gathered outside, a mixture of media, activists and curious Watford residents. Four Bilderbergs ago (has it been that long?) there were barely a dozen people outside the conference in Greece. The relationship with the press back then was simple: arrest them. Follow them, harass them, chase them out of town.
But Watford in 2013 is a very different sort of town. It’s a town full of satellite trucks, Italian news crews, and Financial Times journalists. It’s a town with a press zone. A press zone with portable toilets … with hand gel. It’s all been so relentlessly civilised. The police have been strolling about, smiling. Puppies have been rolling on the cut grass.
Even the One Show turned up. John Sergeant, working for the One Show, strolled the paddock grandly, soaking up the atmosphere. “A fabulous outing,” he deemed it, as he made to leave. “And so very British. We’re on the side of a hill, in the glorious sunshine, friendly policemen everywhere; I feel like I should be playing skittles and bowling for a pig.” He looked around at the throng – every other huddle a national news interview – and smiled. “This is jolly nice.”
A jolly nice Bilderberg. Something I wasn’t sure I’d ever see. Never mind the steady stream of limousined technocrats and hedge-fund billionaires humming up the hill. The weird ritual of ducking delegates, tinted windows and rings of steel. Up on the hill, an ugly looking steel and concrete fence, a paranoid scar on the landscape. But over here in the paddock, in front of news crews, this is where Bilderberg changed.
The cold war policy of disengagement and secrecy melted away in the Watford sun, and en masse, the mainstream media found a way of talking about the conference. They spoke about lobbying, influence, transparency and democracy.
One “mainstream journalist” (as he wished to be known) described the press zone as “very well organised, surprisingly so” – considering it was all put on by volunteer journalists, liaising with the news media on Bilderberg’s behalf. He was expecting a “disorganised rabble”, all dreadlocks and no substance. What he found, he said, was a mix of people “from dreadlocks to sharp suits, from Christians to hardened atheists”. He could see “60 years of secrecy” evaporating in front of his eyes. What he expected now – his advice for Bilderberg – was to “take the bull by the horns and make it a proper conference”. Start behaving like what it is.
Expect the odd lazy hit piece burped out by journalists who can’t quite be bothered to make their story be about the international policy summit happening half a mile away. They’ll manage to find a 70-year-old hippy who thinks the NSA are bugging his beard. Big win.
The Press Association quoted Judd Charlton, a ventriloquist from Camden in north London, who perhaps articulated a view that some of the media wanted to capture. He said: “We are basically here to bring down the parasites who are drug dealers and bank collapsers who seem to want to destroy this world.”
Of course, the alternative media have been banging this drum for decades, and have come in for more than their fair share of scorn for trying to take this conference seriously. But on such a beautiful Bilderberg, we don’t have to look to the past. We can look to a future when this kind of thing is normal. For this year’s conference, Bilderberg bowed to pressure and hired a German corporate communications firm. Next year, they’ll be holding a press conference. And I won’t be sitting in the audience. There’ll be no need.