A Roundelay of Report-Writers
The Presidents of China and and Colombia were having difficulty finding a topic in which they shared an interest.
"Seen much of Wheeler the Wreport-Writer wrecently?" "Not since that time that he was only two bodyguards away from me," replied President Jiang, relieved that the conversation was flowing again. President Pastrana realized he was bested: "Oh, in my case he was right at the back of the hall." The president of Burkina Faso joined in eagerly: "When I opened a meeting in Ouagadougou, Wheeler was sitting outside in the car with his driver. He seemed to think he'd already seen too many official openings, but I did get a sort of contact buzz from his distant presence."
The first two looked around in some surprise, listened politely to the speaker, and returned to their conversation. Jiang had established his dominance now, but his triumph was short-lived—he was about to be trumped by Vice-President Gore: "Well, I've had him on the same platform as me." Gore looked smug, the others crestfallen. "Of course, that was in the days when they had the report-writers up on the podium, instead of as nowadays at the back of the hall."
What are these report-writers? Or précis-writers, or summary-record writers, or even rapporteurs? Well, they kinda, like, you know, write reports. Of international meetings. Jotting down what happened in a meeting sounds like a walk in the park—a stroll in the Dragon Pool Park, as President Jiang might have said—but the catch is that the report of one day’s meeting is usually required by the following morning. Which means that we start the meat of our work when the delegates are already packing up for the evening. Which in turn can lead to some pretty late nights, some fairly zonked-out report-writers and a considerable effort to be back on station, suit polished shiny and shoes pressed crisply, tie brushed flat and hair neatly knotted, at the beginning of the next day.
The long nights start with the question of what sort of report is required. Paradoxically, the easiest are those where we are supposed to record every delegate’s position—what we call the “he said she said” type. There, the main requirement is fiendish speed at note-taking. More difficult are the reports where we are supposed to distill only the essence: “Hey, guys, that stuff about the Kasserine Pass, and 'C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre,' and the White Mountain, and ‘Some chicken—some neck,’ he didn’t actually mean all that stuff, right? He was just saying ‘Back off!,’ right? And since what’s-‘is-name did back off, we can leave all that out, right?"
Those long nights can take on a dreamlike quality. Not only because of the sheer intensity of concentration needed for the write-ups, but also because of the tension between getting it done by the impossible deadline and getting it done right. It is then that the details of producing a really correct report seem to loom implacably largest: is it "trafficking in" or "trafficking of" or "traffic in" or "traffic of”? I know the Convention is "... against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs," but when it's people it's usually "... trafficking in persons," right ? (Although the Council of Europe calls it "trafficking in human beings.") Right? I knew it once, I wrote it down on an envelope. But what about "traffic ... small arms"? I think that's usually "… trafficking in," although I believe the Bamako Declaration is "trafficking of."
Concentrate, this gig is about people, not drugs or weapons! Is it "people with disabilities," or "persons"? (But watch out for the Southern African Federation of the Disabled!) "Mortality in children under five?" or "under-5 mortality?" Where did I put that envelope?
Does this client say "The Gambia" or just "Gambia"? "Sudan," "The Sudan" or "the Republic of the Sudan"?
"Was Kazakhstan speaking as Kazakhstan, or as a co-opted member of the Polish delegation?" "That’s easy: when she's Kazakhstan, she speaks Russian; when she's a co-opted member of Poland, she speaks English."
“You’ve got to shorten this - you’re giving Greenpeace more lines than the President of the host country!”
“That guy from Ramsar, observing at this meeting of the Biodiversity Convention, when he said ‘Of course, the Convention is absolutely the primary environmental instrument,’ did he mean that the Ramsar Convention is, or that Biodiv is?”
At other times the stress comes paradoxically because there is no tension, just waiting, waiting, waiting; for example because our report cannot be put to bed until some politically sensitive wording has been agreed between different sides. “….. may be genetically modified living organisms….” / “….. might be genetically modified living organisms….” / “….. could possibly include genetically modified living organisms….” Those can be the really long ones. Then, as the evenings turn into nights and the nights turn into early mornings, the questions tend to be different: “What’s the latest you can buy wine in Montreal?” (11 p.m., although I did once persuade a dépanneur owner to sell me some at 2 a.m. As a Muslim, he probably thought that the extra three hours on my route to perdition weren’t going to make a difference anyway!) Or “Hey, chaps, how do you say ‘Bring it to Security, and then ask for the leport liters’? I’ve found an all-night sushi delivery place.” Or, as one of our leaders will sometimes say with a delightful Scottish lilt: “Will ye have a wee dram?" We usually will. (On one such occasion, I remembered that I had been grocery shopping that day and had a huge slab of Brie in my briefcase. “Will ye have a wee dram?" "D’you want a lump of Brie?" ……. “Will ye have another wee dram?" "Want another chunk of Brie?" …… All night long.)
And then there was the time in Sri Lanka when it really looked as if we would finish work in time to get to at least the end of the cocktail reception. (Receptions are good, even if we don't manage to attend, because we know that 99% of the delegates will be there, and thus won’t be tampering with our report!) Work was going well, there was a bus and an Army escort standing by to take us from the conference building to the center of Colombo, we needed just a little more time... and then an air-conditioner blew. The computers started to overheat, one by one the power outlets shut down and the irritating chirping of the UPSs got louder, our network went down making our references inaccessible, documents became corrupted, computer technicians looked hopeless, the room got hotter. Finally, the bus left with the documents control staff, but without the report-writers.
But Docs Control did not forget their colleagues! Around midnight, they came back from the reception bearing dishes of curry which had cooled down enough to congeal and turn greasy, and bottles of white wine which—in sympathy—had warmed up to about the same temperature!
In those bizarre hours, when nothing seems to be going right, the two types of question sometimes blur into one another: "Was that French guy speaking as France, as the European Union and its Member States, as the European Commission, or as the observer from the Sanctions Committee?" "I don't know, but I took a note…. hey! Who's put a dollop of curry on my notes?"
“Who was that one who spoke in Arabic between Japan and Belgium? I’ve only got L.” "I just put L, too, but I'm pretty sure it was Libya." "I only put L as well, but I'm certain it was Lebanon." "That’s not L, it’s E for ‘Egypt’ with smudges of Brie on it!!” “That’s not an E or an L, that’s K for ‘Kuwait!’” “All agreed?” ‘Well….. yes, it’s Kuwait.” “Yup, Kuwait.” “Definitely, Kuwait.” “Right, Kuwait ……… guys, Kuwait isn’t attending!!”
But suddenly, incredibly, the last ‘t’ has been dotted and the last ‘i’ crossed, the last signature of approval obtained, the name of every convention and international organization checked and rechecked, and the day’s report can go for reproduction. At the same time, it will be going—perhaps going halfway around the world to a more useful time-zone—for translation into the other five languages, but for the report-writers the day is finally done.
The dawn sky is lightening.
"Will ye have a wee dram?”