15 December 2005

The usual suspects were there at the annual Correspondents Award dinner. The irrepressible Ian Williams was his usual self, despite acquiring a title with Emiritus in it and buying a "manor" upstate. Jim Wurst, U.N. Correspondents Association President for 2005, was coolly ensuring that guests were accommodated, and arrangements finalized. "Pillar" correspondents changed their fighting gear into more worldly attire. The females amongst them: Maggie Farley, Raghida Dergham, Evelyn Leopold, Betsy Pisik, Edith Lederer, looked stunning and at ease. Some newlyweds like Abdal Rahim Fouqara of Al-Jazeera brought along his lovely Moroccan bride. So did Jonathan Wachtel of Fox News. The Sun's Benny Avni, forever curious, circulated around for the latest news he may have missed while Gloria Kins -- a veteran of all U.N. journalistic enterprises -- touched based with the old and new. Washington Post ace correspondent Colum Lynch, Warren Hogue of the New York Times, Masood Haider of Pakistan's Dawn, Luisa Cabello of Spain's Telecenco -- all hard-working, hard-hitting professional reporters took time out to enjoy an evening of friendly camaraderie while jointly encouraging the value of media excellence.

Two memorial prizes were given: one for our colleague Elizabeth Neuffer, Boston Globe U.N. correspondent killed in a car accident in Iraq in 2003. The other was for Ricardo Ortega, a television journalist from Spain's Antenna 3 who was killed on assignment in Haiti in 2004.

A Gold medal for coverage on U.N. and the Iraqi elections was awarded to Kafna Linzer of the Washington Post and Mohammed Bazzi of Newsday. Another Gold medal was awarded to Ishbel Matheson and Dan McMillan of BBC Radio 4 and World Service for coverage of the conflict in Darfur. A third for reporting on humanitarian and development affairs went to Supara Janitchfar of the Bankgkok Post for a story on the U.N. and Human Rights in Thailand. Several other awards were given to runner ups as guests mingled between tables.

For the first time, the dinner was held at the Delegates Lounge, a taboo to correspondents during General Assembly debates. The beautiful setting, with Manhattan, the Queens Bridge, and the East River as background, impressed even reluctant critics who joined in applause when it was mentioned that Chef de Cabinet Mark Malloch Brown had arranged it.

While last year the Secretary General was not in the best shape, this year he looked truly cheerful. With his wonderful and gracious wife Nane by his side, he took time, easily moving among reporters and pausing for photographers -- even for those who had given him a hard time.

Kofi Annan's light-hearted speech reflected an uplifted -- and uplifting -- mood:

"A year ago I asked you how many people it took to change a United Nations' lightbulb that didn't really want to change. This year, the regular noon press briefing opened up a whole new line of study in this field. How many journalists does it take to change the subject, if the journalists in question don't really want to change the subject? The answers seems to be that it takes only one correspondent to hold the poor subject to the wall (or in this case, hold the spokesman to the wall) -- and a dozen others to keep asking which ten floors of the Secretariat the wall is holding up."

"Recently, I found myself in the U.N. Correspondents Club, one floor up, gazing at the portraits of all Presidents of the Association since its founding in 1949. My, they were a well-dressed and clean-cut bunch in those days. Do you realize that until 1987, not one of them even sported facial hair? Today, conversely, the only thing Messrs Wurst and Williams seem to have in common is their beard."

Annan went on to conclude:

"The room we are sitting in is known as the Delegates Lounge, but is has probably seen even more correspondents than delegates come and go over the years -- I daresay in various states of refreshment. The only thing topping the number of drinks poured here must be the number of leaked U.N. documents. The room has seen its fair share of drama in other ways. Remember the scene in the 1959 movie North by Northwest? The character from the fictitious United Nations organ UNIPO is stabbed in the back in this room, right in front of Cary Grant. Clearly Hitchcock knew already then that here at the U.N., there is always reason to watch one's back."

As Mr. & Mrs. Annan left discreetly to allow for table hopping, a declared ban on dancing in the aisles was gradually broken. A gorgeous woman, wearing a semi-oriental dress, began swaying to the music, tempting some of the most serious men to join and swirl.

it was a cheerful evening of enlightened and light cheer by people who agree or disagree, but know that they all believe in the same right cause: the quality of life, human dignity and human development. Happy Holidays.