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At the UN, Team Ban On the Defensive, Chiding Reporters While Access is Denied

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: News Analysis

UNITED NATIONS, July 18, updated 2 p.m., below -- Could a public relations defense be mounted for a hapless defendant? Apparently yes. Witness the July 18 submission to The Guardian by new UN communications chief Michael Meyer, energetically (re) defining "the essence of Ban Ki-moon," Meyer's boss.

            Ban should be credited, according to Meyer, for the release of the British sailors in Iraq, and BBC journalist Alan Johnston in Gaza. And that's only Britain! If Meyer took the time to reply to unfavorable reviews of Ban in Malaysia, Russia or Somalia, perhaps another litany would issue.

            From UN Headquarters we can report that Mr. Meyer has taken to summoning upstairs a range of journalists, requesting among other things that they disclose where exactly it is that they have gotten the impression that Mr. Ban is surrounded, as the Times of London put it, by Koreans. It's not true, Mr. Meyer reportedly insists, citing to a morning meeting of at least ten advisors, in which only two are from the Republic of Korea, Mr. Ban and and his "senior political advisor" Kim Won-soo.

            Tuesday Inner City Press asked at the noon briefing if a list which Team Ban finally circulated on July 13, for the first time listing Mr. Kim as an Assistant Secretary General although he is technically only the deputy chief of staff, constitutes the attendees of the morning meeting. The question was not answered at noon, and was dodged in a six p.m. e-mail response, which rather than saying yes or no referring to some online resource, the Internet address of which was not given. And this from ex-journalists.

Mr. Ban under high ceiling, per UN Photo (liberated sailors not shown)

            Mr. Meyer's submission to the Guardian, beyond its admittedly well-written rhetoric, is directed at the opening critique advanced in the Times of London (to which one assumes Mr. Meyer has written as well). The Americans wanted Ban because he is weak, and now we're stuck with him, the Times (of London) quotes a senior diplomat as saying.

            Team Ban not only responds that Mr. Ban is not weak, but seems to imply that those who say so are racist. Meyer summarizes the critique as of Ban as "oh-so-polite in that Asian way; he is surrounded by Koreans, Indians and other non-Europeans with little inside experience." This might be called the race card, and if deployed in these circumstances, it is often a subject's last or next to last refuge.

            The "non-European" retort echoes an earlier dust-up, in which charismatic Kofi Annan holdover Alicia Barcena took issue with a (non-European) ex-staffer's critique of her and the Deputy Secretary General as "lightweights."

            From continuing reporting in the corridors of the UN, there emerges two relevant staffing predictions. One has Ms. Barcena renouncing her post atop the UN Department of Management. The other has titular chief of staff Vijay Nambiar eager to leave as well (although his native India is said to be urging that he stay, to maintain this level of access).

            This seeming deployment of the race card is particularly ironic given that Ban is currently under fire from the African Group of nations, for his move without consultations to consolidate out of existence the UN's Office of the Special Advisor on Africa. If this represents the savvy deal-making to which Mr. Meyer alludes, it is at a level of subtlety that few here understand. There were no negotiations, and no consultations. In the hallways one hears speculation, in what passes for UN humor, that Ban will create an Office of the Special Advisor on the Korean Peninsula.

            But for now Team Ban should keep clear its rebuttals. Inner City Press has already faced pointed questions, why are you so interested in Koreans? For the record, what we are interested in is transparency: who is hired, who has access. These are journalistic questions that should be answered -- particularly by ex-journalists.

2 p.m. update -- From the 38th floor, some critiques.  It is not surprising that Koreans are proud that a countryman is Secretary-General. People are consulted on an as-needed basis. A reply: these are reasonable responses, that should be on-the-record, after questions about who has access are allowed, and answered. Another point from the 38th floor: to say that questions (on favoritism, corruption and even on Somalia) were "banned" at Ban Ki-moon's July 16 press conference is too strong. Even if some journalists were skipped over, the questions could have been asked by others. That too is a good point -- but since Ban Ki-moon chose to himself bring up the "Koreans" matter, the process and even he would have been better served by taking questions on the topic from those who had raised it. Maybe next time, maybe soon.

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UN Office: S-453A, UN, NY 10017 USA Tel: 212-963-1439

Reporter's mobile (and weekends): 718-716-3540