International Herald Tribune
Marking a major non-event
Sunday, January 28, 2007

Another Davos has come and gone, leaving one baffled as to why the event receives such extensive media coverage given the unrepresentative selection of "movers and shakers" assembled there.

As a veteran of Davos, for the first time in several years I viewed the event not at first hand but through the prism of coverage in the international press. I am more baffled than ever that the event claims more print coverage than such other set-piece annual events as the Group of 8 summit, the IMF/World Bank annual meetings or the UN General Assembly — let alone the poor man's counterpart, the largely ignored World Social Forum just held in Nairobi. The extent of coverage confirms to many not just in the poor world but in the newly rich societies of Asia the implicit assumption of the West that the views of its politicians, businessmen and social commentators are of overwhelming importance while their's count for little.

Thus we hear plenty of Western views about the rise of China and India, but few on how they view each other or the West, or their future global role. That Japan is the world's second largest economy or Korea the leader in several major industrial fields go largely unreflected, except through the views of economists from Western investment banks.

Two years ago this column suggested that "the 'World' in World Economic Forum has become something of a misnomer," noting that almost 80 percent of the speakers were from the Western world and more than 50 percent from the United States and Britain alone. Equally absent were the East Asian giants of global commerce or representatives of the 300 million Muslims of secular Indonesia and Bangladesh. Last year I noted that Davos was "a useful mirror of the West's received wisdom about the world," but a very poor reflection of global trends and very late in waking up to the impact that Asian giants in particular had been making on the globe.

Judging by the media coverage, nothing much has changed this year. Yes, the issue of climate change was to the fore, and even included some participation by India and China on the subject of emissions. But, given how even President George W. Bush has now acknowledged the existence of this problem, it showed how far Davos is a laggard rather than a leader in the field of opinion forming, and a poorly balanced one at that.

The financial sector continued to get a large share of Davos media coverage — again a reflection of the choice of speakers as well as the interests of the news wire services' major clients. But there seems to have been one improvement this year — the absence of the movie world glitterati, whose presence last year added to the media-circus atmosphere.

It was not always like this. In the past, Davos attracted far less media coverage because it focused more on discussion of themes and ideas and frank exchanges in closed sessions where participants spoke and argued more freely. Now it has become a forum for grandstanding speeches and sound-bite quotes. Platitudes that would otherwise go unreported get extensive coverage and junior-league brokerage economists get publicity for rehashing the opinions of research reports which would otherwise go unnoticed and unremarked.

The Western bias, far less noticeable in earlier days, has become self-reinforcing as Asian government and business leaders ignore Davos or dispatch midlevel officials. Even rich countries and companies sometimes baulk at the cost of participation.

For sure, some business deals get discussed. There may be opportunities for dialogue on the Middle East or the Doha round of trade talks. But there are opportunities aplenty elsewhere for such meetings — and in circumstances where the atmosphere is less party oriented.

So why does Davos continue to attract media attention far in excess of its real news value?

The answer, at least from this journalist, is that it is fun, a social event masquerading as hard work. Lots of good food and drink, a chance to catch up with old friends and perhaps meet some new ones. A bracing climate, isolated position and agreeable environment add to the charm. (When Davos moved to New York in 2002 in homage to 9/11 the atmosphere was lacking and it was more like a UN General Assembly meeting, complete with lousy food).

Yes, it would better to be in Davos than read about in Hong Kong. But let's stop pretending it is a major event for anyone other than the participants.