History’s first virtual UNGA scares living daylights out of junketeers; low on carbon, a mirror to talk shops (Commentary)

No air miles, no impressive hotel bills, no traffic gridlock in New York City, no ‘summits’ on the side, not even clinking glasses or wafts of cheap perfume from faraway lands, blocking calendars for the next talk shop to improve the world.

The first virtual version of the United Nations General Assembly in the institution’s 75 years, the new format US presidential debates and, indeed, marquee talkathons around the world have blown the lid off the best (or worst) kept secrets of the world’s outsize conferencing gigs: Talk is possible without burning cash. Indeed, carbon neutrality can begin where junketeering stops.

The UNGA ‘pandemic edition’ has further refined our understanding of online audiences and is reimagining the work of the beat reporter during peak political pageantry.

The absence of a live audience and the dispersal of community from the public square puts the reporter’s presence in new perspective. Unscripted moments are gone, so are the lion’s share of on-location vox pops. Pre-recorded pitches trump live segments. Core content rules. At the UNGA, the 15-minute pitch asserted, just for this year perhaps, as the golden mean. Shorter was better. If your country delivered some epic shade, as India did, that was the secret sauce.

A new form of public speaking is surfacing on the world’s screens. It still doesn’t have a name, though.

For technicians and organisers at UNGA, the risk of on-air glitches during live programming remained just too much to comprehend. In most cases, the ask for live video was at a historic high. The end products told us we’re not there yet. Ditto for the Democratic and Republican conventions. We saw it at the UNGA too. ‘Live’ remained iffy when the technicians and the speakers weren’t in the same room.

In a line, you don’t need to turn it ‘up to eleven’. Up to eleven being an idiom from popular culture, coined in the 1984 movie, ‘This Is Spinal Tap’, where guitarist Nigel Tufnel triumphantly demonstrates an amplifier whose volume knobs are marked from zero to eleven, instead of the usual zero to ten. This UNGA, meaning and value of accepted labels held the key just a bit more. Pulp floundered.

At a time when more than 7 billion people wait for a vaccine, our slingshots are few yet powerful: Masks, social distancing, hygiene and digital public goods.

Does conferencing fit in? Not quite, despite the fact that the endless pre-recorded video loop offered 190 iterations of that, mostly filled with pleas for a vaccine.

For 74 years, the “high-level week” at the UNGA, when heads of state and government descended on Manhattan’s East Side, had, arguably, the world’s most coveted lectern. By extension, rent-a-quote mavens and soundbite artists have prospered in search of hacks – and vice versa.

It’s on these streets that Greta Thunberg did her anti-Trump act. It’s here that thousands of delegates and the ‘in’ crowd had waited in long lines to collect their prized UN lanyards for exclusive access to the walled garden.

The virus killed off that circus. Digital connect expanded the notion of the UNGA platform.

A total of 102 heads of state spoke (virtual) compared with 81 (in-person) last year, the UNGA president’s office told IANS. In all, 190 member states spoke in 2020: 102 heads of state, 1 vice president, 55 heads of government, 1 deputy prime minister and 26 ministers.

Compare these numbers with those from last year. About 25,000 people entered the UN headquarters just on the first day of last year’s roughly weeklong meeting.

New York hotels typically make $20 million from UNGA attendees’ room rentals alone. Right now, they are making about 20 per cent of their usual topline, giving thousands of room nights free to doctors and frontline workers.

This year, as videos beamed from a master control room deep inside the landmark UN building, the New York pedestrian had an easier time. No police barricades because global leaders weren’t hanging out here discussing strategic patience and sewing up the climate hole while their shiny, gas guzzling limousines purred doing just that.

Our wager: The world’s do-gooder economy will return next September, with a vengeance. The air miles and the champagne are much too precious to give up just yet.

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