The Durban master class in media management

The press briefing given last Monday at the UN climate talks in Durban by Dr Jonathan Pershing, US deputy special envoy on climate change, should be replayed on continuous loop in the reception area of every media coaching outfit from Manhattan to Downtown LA.

Pershing has the toughest job in the US State Department. He has to present US climate change policy to the world’s media at the annual conference of the parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

No politician mired in scandal, no banker caught on the wrong side of junk derivatives, could be dealt a hand so wretched for credible media briefings. Answerable to a government controlled by those for whom science is an experiment with a bad smell, Pershing is obliged to set up camp in a vipers’ nest of UN apparatchiks and NGO smart-asses.

In studying the envoy’s methods it is first necessary to understand that this is not a solo operation. Pershing has an accomplice – she never gives her name and certainly never smiles. She was tutored in the uni-polar age, orchestrating their arrival in the room in a manner which commands a deferential hush amongst the press corps.

If Ms Minder has read The Post-American World and the Rise of the Rest, she must have thought it was about Hollywood.

Suitably protected, Pershing launches into his assertive presentation. We find ourselves nodding in consent that his country should take no action to defy global warming when the African continent is ablaze with anger at its impact. We sense that his desired outcome for the conference is already in the bag.

This year Dr Pershing has managed to coach himself to avoid use of the hackneyed phrase “going forward.” It always seemed so out of tune with what’s happening back home.

Question-time is an unequal contest. Jonathan Pershing is a large man with a flourishing dark beard. When he leans forward staring down the journalist, he could almost be one of the three bears becoming less than amused with what he sees.

The session is like one of those 19th century fair-ground shows in which a champion pugilist takes on all-comers for sixpence a time. One by one the carefully prepared questions are flung out of the ring.

In the process, Pershing lectures on the American Constitution, family planning and farming. A lone female journalist from South Africa enters the fray with a well-intentioned intellectual slant on the challenge of climate change. “I think there was part of a question there,” was the put-down.

When the man from Bloomberg makes a deft assault by referring to the recommendation in the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that emissions should peak in 2015, he suffers the most fearful knockout punch we have witnessed in these encounters:

“I was the lead author of that chapter,” booms Pershing.

Only once is the special envoy disconcerted. Associated Press suggested that, if the UN conference agrees to everything that the US demands, the Senate wouldn’t approve it anyway, given that it hasn’t approved an international treaty for years.

“I’d prefer to state that in the opposite direction,” Pershing replies. He needn’t have worried – help is always close at hand.

“Thanks for coming” snaps the lady to his right.

When this climate business is all over and we spend our winters scuba-diving in the Labrador Sea, the American people should bestow their greatest accolades on this awesome couple.

Their defence of the indefensible is right up there with Custer and The Alamo.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK