15 January 2006

Knock, knock, who's there? It's James Bone. As predicted, the Green Mercedes came up again. Its mishandling blew out of proportion at the year-end press conference given by the Secretary General. Instead of highlighting Mr. Annan's achievements, the media highlighted a bizarre argument with London Times correspondent James Bone.

Obviously, some incense burner with little media experience had advised the Secretary General to rough up his audience. No more Mr. Nice Guy. In fact, many U.N.-accredited reporters had been caught off-guard on the food-for-oil story because they did not want to unduly rough up a seemingly nice, pleasant and amenable person like Mr. Annan. But when he takes off his gloves then there is no excuse not to plunge into his case.

He started with a dig on the media in the introductory remarks. Apparently someone around him must have developed a "strategy" to confront the media by telling reporters that they had missed a bigger story. That came out again by Jan Egeland in his pathetic response to a Financial Times thorough investigation on Tsunami relief. He dismissed the whole journalistic effort by claiming that the distinguished paper had missed the bigger story, ostensibly of his relief work. That backfired. Why don't you do your work and allow the journalists to do their work. If you don't heckle them they may be less inclined to heckle you.

But, then, let's go back to the story. So, Kofi Annan blew his top; or at least appeared to do so. It may have been a planned outburst which got out of hand. Four days before Christmas, one day before going on annual leave, he burst out in public view of U.N.-accredited correspondents, picking on one in particular, James Bone of the London Times. That night on television and the following day in the press, the reporting was not about any U.N. achievement or any accomplishment by the Secretary General. Though rebuked as an overgrown schoolboy, the story was about the irrepressible, cynical, sharp-witted, hard-hitting Englishman.

Being human, the U.N. Secretary General has the right to show occasional flashes of anger. Kofi Annan has been through a lot over the last two years without revealing his thin skin. It is almost miraculous that he did maintain his cool for so long.

A main problem was that the U.N.-accredited press in particular has been so adoring and accommodating for the last seven years that questions reflecting a shift, however limited, seemed disappointing -- even rebellious. The usual accommodators did not start covering Food-For-Oil until it became a glaring shortcoming. While most reporters personally like Kofi Annan, some of those around him sold him the perception that his positive image was their own making. They "owned" the media in the building, they seemed to claim, regardless of shortcomings, or scandals. Until it was otherwise demonstrated, negative reporting was claimed by them to be only by either an unimportant fringe or an embittered isolated individual.

That may explain why it took one year to respond to Food-For-Oil reports, two years to deal with media questions related to Dileep Nair and Ruud Lubbers. When you are told almost daily that you are the most popular man in the world, and the diplomatic rock star of the international community, with incense burners covering their own deeds while singing your praise, how could you believe that a persistent journalist is anything but a mischievous troublemaker? Although your best friend may be your truthful mirror, you will doubt even your best friend when he tries to tell you that something is wrong -- that the only way to solve a problem is to recognize its existence. While watching how members of Annan's team operated, someone recalled an old story when someone seeking to be close to the throne wanted to gain more of the monarch's favour and told him pompously: "Your Majesty, I destroyed the homes of all your enemies in the South of England." The puzzled ruler responded: "But I have no enemies in the South." Then, after a pause, he added: "I suppose now I do."

Anyway, Kofi Annan is the U.N. Secretary General who rightly expects to be treated with due deference; and James Bone is a professional, highly-regarded reporter trying to do his job. The Secretary General is entitled to answer questions any way he likes. Journalists are entitled to ask their questions the way they want. Let the "peoples court" decide. Meanwhile, don't forget your valium.