The Prime Minister had flown all the way to Japan to attend his first G7 summit. He was not pleased as he took the first question at his closing news conference from the BBC’s usually reliably straightforward political editor.
While Chris Mason cautiously formulated his enquiry about what Suella Braverman had wanted her civil servants to do about her speeding ticket, Rishi Sunak took a gulp of water, tutted and boggled back with exasperation: “Do you have any questions about the Summit?”
The BBC man stood his ground, after an awkward pause he volunteered “others will I think”.
This pained exchange exposed the Prime Minister’s inexperience. There are two uncomfortable truths about foreign trips. First, while the main players may feel elevated by rubbing shoulders with each other, the reporters looking on are typically unimpressed by high-minded discussions. Secondly, the record shows that a visit is more likely to go wrong if the trip happens to be to Japan.
Travelling press parties help to defray the costs of prime ministerial galivanting. It is not cheap. A seat on Sunak’s plane for the round trip to Japan was priced at around £10,000. The journalists on board are always anxious to satisfy their bosses so they keep on paying up for future trips. That means getting a story, and preferably a headline-making one rather than a worthy down-bulletin or inside page account of high-level discussions.
Since the British persist in the view that foreigners are intrinsically funny, photographers are easily satisfied with pictures of the Prime Minister next to some local colour. Reporters have to hunt for fresh news. Often hot news means following up on gossip – not least because reporters have more intimate access to a prime minister and their officials on a trip than they enjoy at Westminster. The two sides are travelling on the same plane, perhaps sleeping in the same hotels, and there are frequent opportunities to speak to the Prime Minister directly.
Mrs Thatcher had a keen eye for a photo opportunity and kept her media entourage at bay with regular posing. She also framed a summit as a newsworthy confrontation with the others, whether they were G7 summiteers, European partners or members of the Commonwealth. Even the US president came in for a hand-bagging. On one trip to Washington DC, the man from the Daily Express based his entire coverage on repeatedly asking “Will she/did she give Reagan a bollocking?” On the flight home her Press Secretary Bernard Ingham obligingly confirmed that indeed she had. At the first of four G7s in Japan I have covered – in Tokyo, Hokkaido and Okinawa – in 1986, Thatcher came through unscathed thanks to a double act with her chancellor Geoffrey Howe complaining about local taxes on Scotch Whiskey.
Over frequent visits I have grown fond of Japan. On a first or fleeting visit the country can seem alien. There is a language barrier. Though great effort is made to provide translations on notices, the traveller may find themselves with nothing they can read because writing is in Chinese characters. As ably captured in the film Lost in Translation, long haul flights into a widely different time zone are also inevitably disorienting. Downing Street officials and the media accompanying them become equally unsettled with the result thatquick trips to Japan are prone to slip out of control.
John Major also took up the cause of British trade in 1993, though less belligerently than Thatcher. He hosted an elaborate “typically English” garden party for top business contacts on the lawns of the British Embassy in Tokyo, even though it snowed, unfortunately. Did the travelling British press care? Of course not. Scallywag, a short-lived scandal sheet and The New Statesman had gone public with false allegations of a relationship with Claire Latimer, who sometimes did catering for Number 10. Major was repeatedly confronted by his travelling companions about standards in public life and threats to his leadership back in Britain. In his autobiography Major writes that the Japanese looked on with “bewilderment” and “disbelief” at the hostile questioning of the British media at the two prime ministers’ joint press conference. Edwina Currie revealed her own affair with Major in her autobiography published in 2001.
Major’s discomfort in Japan was nothing compared to Tony Blair’s in July 2003, when he jetted to a bilateral meeting in Prime Minister Koizumi’s favourite resort. This was in a mountainous nature park outside Tokyo, with deep lakes rumoured to hide a local cousin of the Loch Ness monster. As Blair’s plane prepared to land, news broke in the press cabin via mobile phones that Dr David Kelly had been found dead. With help from Number Ten officials, Kelly, a government weapons expert, had been identified days earlier as the likely source for a bitterly disputed BBC radio report that the dossier of evidence about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction had been “sexed up”.
The Prime Minister’s travelling spokesman tried to calm down the excited travelling media by announcing that there would be an official inquiry into the death – which became the court hearings held by Lord Hutton.
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Blair and Koizumi went ahead with a brief, heavily controlled news conference. There was no chance that Jonathan Oliver of the Mail on Sunday would be called to ask one of the few questions but his bosses in London had told him that there was no point coming home unless he asked Blair if he had blood on his hands. Making the best of his knowledge of the broadcast media, Oliver employed one of our techniques for generating a soundbite illustrating the story when the subject is unlikely to speak. Oliver alerted camera teams that he was going to shout out his question come-what-may as the news conference wound up. “Have you got blood on your hands prime minister? Are you going to resign over this?” he bellowed. The two prime ministers were already on their feet and exited without saying a word. Oliver’s shout duly featured on the British news bulletins.
The next morning, I conducted an extended interview with Blair for my Sunday morning programme on Sky News. At the insistence of the local landlord we were perched, shoeless, on tatami mats. The Prime Minister was solemn. “Look, first and foremost this is a terrible personal tragedy.” Blair told me: “What had happened is absolutely awful… in the end the government is my responsibility and I can assure you that the judge will be able to get all the facts…”
The mood worsened as the trip continued. At the next stop the South Korean government made an official complaint about the travelling media’s failure to ask relevant questions. In Hong Kong an incoming typhoon compelled the travelling party to cut short their visit and fly home a day early.
Still no British prime minister has suffered a humiliation to match George H W Bush’s back in 1992. President Bush senior was suddenly overcome at a state dinner and vomited in his host Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa’s lap.
Merely peppered by unwanted questions from Chris Mason and his colleagues, Rishi Sunak should thank his luck that his brush with the Curse of the Rising Sun was not worse.
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