Agam's Gecko
Wednesday, December 28, 2005

'm a little late remarking on this, but last week I caught part of Kofi Annan's traditional year end press conference over the APTN. I wish I'd been able to watch the whole thing, because as I found out the next day, he threw something of a temper tantrum at one of the veterans on the UN beat, James Bone.

When I did have access to CNN, their best half hour of the week was Richard Roth's "Diplomatic License," and particularly his weekly round up of UN happenings and discussion with James Bone of the Times of London, and Afsane Bassir Pour of Le Monde. Bone has reported on the UN for 17 years, but to the Secretary General he's just an "overgrown schoolboy" who "embarrasses his colleagues" and is "very cheeky." Having watched him many, many times on "Diplomatic License," he always seemed to be someone with an easy-going nature, a comprehensive understanding of the United Nations system and personalities, and probably a lot of very good inside contacts. And not the type to grovel at the feet of a Secretary General, as most of the UN press corps seems to be.

I found a transcript of the conference here, from which I'll extract the portions relevant to Mr. Annan's tantrum. It begins with some apparent banter between press people -- hard to tell which questioner is whom, but I suspect this (inaudible) is Mr. Bone's entry into the fray:
Question: (inaudible) If you don't know what that means, that's "Happy New Year" in Arabic.

Question: Don't look at me!

The Secretary-General: But it's not Arabic.

Question: It is Arabic, but it (inaudible) doesn't mean "Happy New Year"; it means something else.

Question: It had the word "Mercedes" in, but I took it out. Just to comment on the Mercedes before I ask my question. The Volcker report says that the Mercedes was bought in your name, so as the owner of the car, can you tell us what happened to it and where it is now?

Now, my question is that, it's true that we missed a lot of stories in the oil-for-food scandal, and the UN hasn't made it easy. And even your answer today on the Mercedes so far hasn't made it easy. Some of your own stories -- your own version of events -- don't really make sense. I'd like to ask you particularly --

The Secretary-General: I think you are being very cheeky here.

Question: Well, let me -- Sir, let me ask my question.

The Secretary-General: No, hold on. Hold on. Listen, James Bone. You have been behaving like an overgrown schoolboy in this room for many, many months and years. You are an embarrassment to your colleagues and to your profession. Please stop misbehaving, and please let's move on to a more serious subject.

Question: (inaudible) my question.

The Secretary-General: No, move on to a serious --

Question: There are inconsistencies --

The Secretary-General: No, move on to serious journalists. You go ahead.

Question: James, are you finished?

The Secretary-General: No, go ahead.

Question: Okay. Mr. Secretary-General, I was waiting for this question. I believe that I was even before James Bone. But, anyhow, here is my question... [goes on with a softball question]
Touched by such a stalwart defence from his colleague, Mr. Bone apparently leaves the conference soon after. But he then misses this half-hearted comrade's gentle reminder of the public's right to know:
Question: Mr. Secretary-General, in defence of James Bone, he's a hard-working journalist trying to get to the bottom of issues of transparency within the Organization. As a public servant, you understand the need for transparency, and when issues of money and conduct - professional conduct - come into attention, they need to be looked into. But be that as it may, we'll leave that aside... [goes on to toss a few unrelated softball questions]

The Secretary-General: I think James would be happy to know he has a lawyer in the room. Unfortunately, he's gone, but I'm sure others will tell him... [goes on to bunt the softballs]
Ha ha!... "lawyer in the room"... brilliant! Next question!

Toward the end of the conference, another timid query lightly brushed the issue of accountability to legitimate questions:
Question: Mr. Secretary-General, this is a question that's sort of evolved as this conference has gone along. At the beginning, you talked about having a thick skin, thick skin being important. We have seen a side of you, though, that we don't often see. I have two questions. One, how do you feel when you receive this sometimes well-intentioned, sometimes fairly well-researched criticism of you personally, your family, your policies and the United Nations? And second, given the criticisms, are you bracing for a difficult year ahead in 2006?

The Secretary-General: Let me say that when you talk of criticism, I am not afraid of criticism. Some criticisms have been constructive and helpful, and I accept that. Some have been out of place and have really gone beyond the zone of all reasonableness, and you wouldn't expect me or anybody in this house to accept that. But as we move into next year, as I have indicated, I have given you an idea of the agenda I have ahead of me. I have lots of work to do, and I'm going to focus on that and get my work done.

Question: (inaudible) in terms of your family and of the United Nations?

The Secretary-General: I think that I have answered that by saying that some are fair and are unfair, and I don't accept it when it's not fair.
It's not fair, I tell you. Questions about UN corruption or nepotism, and especially where Kojo and duty-free Mercedes Benz's are concerned, are just not fair. Next!

After a few more softballs and "Happy Holidays" wishes from his press watchdogs, Mr. Annan wraps up the press conference. But there is one more member of the press corps with something to say:
Question: Sir, I'm sorry. I really have to do this for the record, Sir.

On behalf of the United Nations Correspondents Association, I have to tell you that James Bone is not an embarrassment. He's a member in good standing of UNCA. He had every right to ask the question (inaudible).

The Secretary-General: No, I agree with you: he has a right to ask questions, and I came here to answer questions. But I think we also have to understand that we have to treat each other with some respect. You can ask questions -- there are ways of asking questions and ways not to ask questions. We also know -- I am not the only one -- you know what has been going on in this room. You know how my spokesmen have been badgered, mistreated, insulted. They have been professional. They have stood there and taken it. And you should also have taken that up with those who behave that way. I'm not worried about answering questions. You have the right to ask all questions you want to ask. I reserve the right to refuse to answer questions I don't want to answer. But there is a certain behaviour and a certain mutual respect which we have to respect.
So there you have it, and it leaves me with one more question. Can you imagine Scott McClellan saying stuff like this in a White House briefing, much less President Bush? OK, two questions. Can you imagine the obsequious White House Press Corps declining to defend itself after, let's say, the President takes a question from the WHPC Queen Helen Thomas -- and he were to reply with belittling schoolyard insults instead of an answer? The uproar! The scandal! Impeach! They'd be beaning him with their notepads and pens...

Claudia Roset, who almost singlehandedly moved the whole massive UN "Oil for Food" scandal into the light of day, has her take on these proceedings (and a good run-down on the growing number of unanswered questions), while James Bone tells his side in the London Times:
AS A journalist, I expect my share of verbal abuse. But it is not everyday that I have my professionalism impugned by the world's top diplomat on global TV.

The advantage is that I have not felt as young for years as I do now that Kofi Annan has described me as an "overgrown schoolboy". The disadvantage --- rather more serious --- is that the UN Secretary-General continues to refuse to respond to the still-unanswered questions about his role in the Oil-For-Food corruption scandal.
You can see the SG's official response at the end of that piece -- a response that again amounts to, "I have nothing to add." James Bone also wrote in yesterday's OpinionJournal:
Kofi Annan, U.N. secretary-general and Nobel peace laureate, is normally the meekest of diplomats. He is so accommodating he once described Saddam Hussein as a man "I can do business with." These days he spends a good deal of time on the phone with Syria's Bashar al-Assad. Yet he seems to have problem with me.
Well James, you're not the tyrannical strongman of a belligerent state, and those guys are so much easier to get along with. And do business with, ahem...

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