Photographers play an important part in bringing the faces of the powerful at the Copenhagen conference to a wider world
There was an eerie silence on Thursday morning in the press area outside the Bilderberg conference venue in Copenhagen. All eyes, and a lot of lenses, were peering up Kalvebod Brygge, the long road to the airport, waiting for the limousines to start whooshing in with their precious cargo: a powerful mix of ministers and moguls, billionaires and business behemoths.
We know George Osborne is due to attend; this year’s conference in Copenhagen will be his seventh. He’s been coming on and off since 2006, though remarkably, in all this time, he hasn’t managed to say seven words about it in public. His discretion is to be much admired. Or criticised. Depending upon your view of democracy.
Photographers are playing an important part in bringing Bilderberg to a wider world – one which for decades paid scant attention to this international summit. There’s a material difference between seeing the words “Allied Supreme Commander Europe” on a press release and seeing his face in a limousine pass you into the Marriott hotel.
General Philip M Breedlove, a four-star general in the United States Air Force, arriving with a thoughtful expression. He’s obviously pondering the discussion topic of Ukraine on this weekend’s agenda. That or which end of the herring buffet to start at first. You have to plan for these things. You don’t want to get between Reid Hoffman, co-founder of Linkedin, and a platter of smørrebrød. You could lose an arm.
It’s one thing to be told that Breedlove is attending, and that he’ll be discussing global politics with foreign ministers and the head of Nato, three senior members of Goldman Sachs – and the chief executive of Airbus. It’s quite another to see him in the flesh. In uniform. With a military aide at his side. He’s come to do business, and his business is war.
This is why reporters and concerned citizens from around the world come to Bilderberg each year: to bear witness to the reality of it. A few years ago, and I know this from personal experience, you were scoffed at as a nutcase if you talked at all about this meeting. You might as well have been trying to describe a conference of unicorns taking place in Narnia. “Pop on your tinfoil hat and run along now …” – but that rhetoric doesn’t hold much water any more.
When you can see a jetlagged Craig Mundie of Microsoft, a member of the Bilderberg steering committee these days, unloading his luggage in front of a luxury hotel, the reality of the meeting is no longer in question.
When you know that after Mundie has had a couple of hours’ sleep and a hot stone massage, he’ll be discussing “Does privacy exist?” with the head of MI6 and the chancellor of the exchequer, that’s when the rhetoric changes. The reality of the conference is no longer in question.
And that’s when the mainstream press start showing up. Danish television news was an early arrival. They negotiated a spot to site their cameras and, right on cue, up trundled Henry Kissinger. Dear old Henry was arriving with his own trusty aide, Klaus Kleinfeld, chairman and chief executive of Alcoa, the world’s third-largest aluminium producer. Unfortunately, the sunlight finds it difficult to penetrate the penumbra of Kissinger, so this isn’t the best photo in the world, but it’s definitely him. I’d know those glasses anywhere. They’ve seen some things.
Henry, of course, is an expert on China, and Klaus Kleinfeld is on the board of the US-China business council, so both of them will have lots to discuss with Cheng Li of the Brookings Institute, an expert on “technological development in China” according to his Brookings bio. No doubt he’ll be taking part in the scheduled discussion about “China’s political and economic outlook”.
A sketchy agenda was released a few days before the conference began, along with a participant list, from which we can assume that the head of MI6, Sir John Sawers, will lead the chat about “How special is the relationship in intelligence sharing?” No one has seen him arrive at the hotel. It’s possible he parachuted in last night, or crept up via the river in scuba gear.
We did manage to spot Cheng Li, looking distinctly worried as he pull up to the security checkpoint. Poor Cheng. It’s like a last forlorn look back into the world, before entering the lion’s den. He’s thinking: if I jumped out now, could I make it to the bus stop before an NSA sniper dropped me? But alas, he hesitated too long, the Mercedes pulled through into the hotel, and for Cheng, the three long days of Bilderberg began.
For those of us outside the hotel gates, we’re settling in for the long haul. In Denmark, the evenings are long and light, the coffee is strong, the police are (like all Danes) unbelievably friendly, and someone just saw Queen Sofia of Spain pulling up at the lights. A cry of recognition flies from the throat of a Spanish journalist, and the assembled lenses rise. A policewoman hops to the side, to avoid blocking our shot, and there’s a chorus of clicks, whirrs and focus beeps.
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