RIGA - Any member of the public trying to use the Latvian National Library last Thursday or Friday would have been turned away. Hulky, earpiece-wearing security guards were there to make sure of it — as they were for the whole first half of the year, when the library was hosting most of the meetings for Latvia’s presidency of the EU Council.
This time, it was NATO’s turn to keep out Latvia’s bibliophiles.
At least, in some cases, the EU Council meetings had been worth it. Those intensely circuitous, jargon-filled discussions did slowly lumber towards some form of progress — whether that was for the EU’s digital single market agenda, or its moribund Eastern Partnership.
Last week’s NATO meeting, however, was a waste of time. The event was the first of its kind to be hosted by NATO’s preposterously named Strategic Communications Center of Excellence — or NATO StratCom COE, if you’re fond of clunky acronyms and abbreviations.
Somewhat inevitably, the event was hosted with all the delusions of grandeur you’d imagine from an institution with such a name.
Weeks earlier, the lead up to the event was characterised by fuss and security checks. Just “2 qualified reporters per media organisation” were allowed to attend, though the invites did not specify what was meant by qualified.
The message, overall, was clear from the get go: journalists should feel lucky to have the chance to write about NATO’s exclusive gathering in the Latvian capital.
Warnings were issued for journalists to hurry up; only limited space was left, organisers informed, as though they were trying to hawk front row tickets to the World Cup final.
It was beautiful weather on both days of the conference; a perfect chance for NATO StratCom to put journalists in their place — the basement.
At EU events, journalists could often wander upstairs and discuss matters with participants. Not with NATO. The invites mentioned an area “dedicated to journalists”, but mentioned nothing about journalists not actually being able to attend or ask questions in most of the discussions.
Instead, you had to watch the discussions from the basement on a projector screen, shut off from the debate and forced to sit and listen as “experts” pontificated about the need to “educate” journalists.
Ironically enough, no one made much of an attempt to educate journalists present about what was going on.
There was no press briefing beforehand; no glossary of terms for some of the technical, highfalutin language in frequent use during the discussions.
Neither was any advance material released under conditions of embargo to help get a quick news report out there.
Frankly, it probably would not have mattered too much even if the organisers had made that sort of effort.
Many of the speakers were like bakers at the end of a long week: they had only stale bread crumbs to offer.
The ethical and practical questions of information security and information war were skimmed over; the findings of the research they had done came across as little more than lazy plagiarisms from countless security conferences that have taken place in the region over the last several months.
Most speakers spent more time showing off their knowledge of historical thinkers rather than providing anything fresh. Tsun Tsu inevitably got a gratuitous mention, as did other cliched war theorists like Karl Von Klausewitz and Niccolo Machiavelli.
The apparent research breakthrough that everyone got excited about seemed to be some rather baffling, pseudo-scientific findings about men over forty-five being more prone to interact online with misinformation-spreading social media users if the profile picture features a scantily clad woman.
The researcher called these users “bikini trolls”.
Clearly, event organisers must have been far too pleased the with the lofty, vague, and arbitrary wordplay of the event’s title - “Perception Matters” - to think about how to create a genuinely engaging, instructive event. Politicians and diplomats queued up to laud it as a success nevertheless; but they were doing so, for the most part, with bland and pre-prepared speeches.
On the bright side, citizens of NATO states can breathe a sigh of relief that the 28 member state alliance has finally come to this realisation about the importance of perception.
The trite observation that “Perception Matters” gets to the heart of how NATO struggles to grasp even the most basic tenets of communications.
As Mark Laity, the Chief of StratComs at NATO’s “Supreme Headquarters” in Brussels, acknowledged in his speech: “To anyone outside our bubble, what we are doing now is blindingly obvious.”
Some journalists decided to try and break down the border — to ascend the stairs and hear some insights from one or two of the invited speakers.
These were mostly politicians and diplomats from the countries participating in the NATO StratCom COE, as well as uniformed NATO military personnel and political scientists.
The journalists who tried this were sent back down by security and told to wait. There might be short interview down in the basement during the lunch break if there was time.
It was like waiting for Greek Gods to descend from Mount Olympus. The timing for their descent would mean missing the inauguration of the new COE premises — probably the only newsworthy development of the day, especially considering the center had been previously located in a dingy Soviet building behind the Latvian ministry of Defence.
When journalists tried to enter the area where the experts were eating during the lunch break, hoping to catch a few quick insights on the matters at hand, they were once again sent back downstairs as though they were some kind of security threat.
“That's just how it is,” said Zane Štāla, NATO’s Contact for Speakers, Delegations and General Issues. And that was that.
The scraps of the expert’s lunch were gathered up hours later and sent down to the basement.
All in all, the yellow press ribbon, and the gigantic laminated press card dangling from it, was as useful as a leper’s bell — serving as a means of segregation. By the end of the day the COE didn't even bother to keep up pretences that it was not a case of “us” and “them”.
One speaker announced that there would be a drinks reception afterwards and all were welcome.
But security at the gates of the nearby museum, where the reception was being held, made clear that “all” did not include the press.
Needless to say, most journalists who attended on the first day ultimately regretted their decision to come.
Many left early — long before the glitzy champagne reception. The warbling, repetitive speeches from diplomats towards the end of the first day’s afternoon session would have been enough to cure insomnia.
Perhaps that’s why NATO’s Secretary General Stoltenberg made the decision to snub the meeting. There are clearly more excellent COEs he needed to visit.
If that meeting was what one of its COEs puts on, it is almost morbid to think of what sort of things NATO’s lesser institutions get up to.
Perhaps there would be a funny side to all this, if there was not an ongoing information war with Russia that is currently exposing all the flaws in NATO’s incompetent, underfunded StatCom.
The disturbing aspect is that many speakers proposed that the best way to counter information attacks was to foster good old fashioned journalism — clear reporting of objective facts from a balanced third party to educate society about the threats it faces, and the various forms those threats take.
Many suggested, rightly, that better cooperation with the media is a cornerstone of this policy. (As is better understanding of social media, which still seems to be talked about at NATO StratCom as though Facebook and Twitter were invented in a flash of lightning this summer, and not over a decade ago.)
Both these improvements will be crucial if NATO wishes to get its message across effectively and respond to challenges coherently.
Yet it was, ironically enough, these same journalists who they should be trying to reach out to, that the StratCom COE seemed to hold in contempt. The message they were sending throughout the event was an assumption that NATO’s COE is ‘holier than thou.’