Politics, journalism and Toronto’s G20 weekend

Quite the weekend in Toronto. As anyone who has followed the history of multinational summits and anarchical protest over the past two decades could have predicted (and did), millions of dollars worth of damage and hundreds of arrests accompanied the G20 meetings at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.

In my view, face-to-face meetings of world leaders are a useful thing, both to promote discussion of foreign and fiscal policies and to advance rapport and understanding. Multilateral summits have always required extensive security preparations, but the large-scale protests that began to accompany them in the latter 20th century increased the costs enormously. For more than 20 years, anarchists have used large and well-meaning protests as cover for their own destructive and criminal activities. Any legitimate protest group or movement that thought things would be different in Toronto was simply naive. Essentially, large-scale protests and demonstrations provide the cover and anonymity anarchists need to operate. The Harper government, the province of Ontario and the integrated security force operating before, during and after the summit understood this; hence, the $1.2-billion security tab.

Given these realities, meetings such as the G20 ought either to go virtual (a severely limiting option) or be permanently located at purpose-build venues that can reasonably accommodate leaders and their accompanying delegations and hangers-on (which can number into the many hundreds per country). The United Nations comes to mind; in the world of graphic novels it might be a Fortress of Solitude. In any case, to spend more than a billion dollars on security for a one-off set of meetings is unsustainable and borders on immoral.

A few critiques of the news media, which on the whole provided fair and balanced coverage of events inside and outside the security perimeter.

First, the use of social media and new technologies as part of the news-gathering process added another dimension to reporting of events, especially on the streets of Toronto. Tools such as Twitter provided an immediacy in reporting that approached real time. Yes, some tweets and posts were inaccurate or misleading, but the work of journalism behind the scenes has always consisted of a process of sorting accuracy from fiction in the context of fast-moving events. With social media, it merely happens more publicly.

But there’s a downside too. Any reporter who has ever covered a rally or strike knows that the mere presence of a still or video camera can alter events. Where a picket line might be peaceful before the arrival of news media (or even after the arrival of a print journalist), it becomes noisy and agitated with the arrival of radio or television. The ubiquity of cameras in cellphones and webcams — in the hands of thrill-seekers, protesters, police and others — raises the stakes and exponentially distorts the event itself, as various actors in the unfolding drama seek their million hits on YouTube or an adrenaline rush they can take away as a virtual souvenir.

Second, the degree to which news media, mainstream and otherwise, provided any type of historical context for the mayhem that began to spill out onto the streets of Toronto was at first remarkably low. Not until Sunday did coverage more frequently begin to include mentions of multilateral meetings and their accompanying protests in places such as Seattle, Quebec City or Kananaskis (the latter as a setting where nature and geography did part of the work of security). Again, background and context seemed more afterthought than preparation.

Finally, there was a bit of a “homer” element to some reports, as national Toronto-based news organizations, with Toronto-centric news sensibilities, staffed by Toronto residents, wrung their hands in distress and worried aloud about the impression their coverage of violence in the streets of Toronto the Good was leaving on the rest of the world.

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