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G20 Dispatches: So Alternative

Christopher Bird and Christopher Drost are Torontoist’s staffers accredited for the G20. They will be reporting on the inside for the duration of the summit; Torontoist’s complete G20 coverage, including reporting from the streets, is here.
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Watching the World Cup at the International Media Centre.


At the end of a long day of reporting, Chris Drost and I sit back at the International Media Centre’s open bar, drinking Mill Street Organic on the taxpayer’s dime (thank you, fellow citizens), watching Japan destroy Denmark on a giant projection TV next to half a dozen happy-as-shit reporters from Fuji TV, and thanking sweet Jesus above that we’re not stuck in the Alternative Media Centre any longer. There is no free beer in the Alternative Media Centre, and that is only one of many, many reasons it’s the media centre where nobody wants to be.


The Alternative Media Centre is the dumping ground for, well, “alternative media,” which makes it seem like Broken Social Scene should be playing in the background. Really, what it is is a collection point for bloggers, NGOs, and other potentially troublesome organizations.
“But wait!” you say. “You’re bloggers.” Yes, but we are Torontoist, with ties to a major national newspaper, and that makes all the difference here. OpenFile, with actual salaried employees and a big budget, is consigned to the Alternative Media Centre because they kill no trees and don’t even hang out with people who kill trees. Here in the Real Media Centre, it’s all about killing trees.

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Inside the Alternative Media Centre.


The government’s working theory, apparently, is that the Alternative Media Centre will become some sort of oasis for all the disparate news sources of the world. It’s early yet so maybe it’ll happen. Right now, though, it doesn’t feel that way. The Alternative Media Centre is a cavernous banquet hall in the newly renovated Allstream Centre, across the street from the International Media Centre in the Direct Energy Building at the CNE, and despite some nice attempts to provide amenities (wifi, pastries, buffet lunch, a flatscreen showing World Cup—and don’t think for a second everybody here isn’t watching the soccer whenever they have a spare moment), it still feels like a hastily thrown together lecture hall. It’s the Charlie Brown of media centres. The Alternative Media Centre has wifi? The International Media Centre has ethernet everywhere, connected to a massive pipe. The Alternative Media Centre has televisions showing the various press briefings? The International Media Centre has the actual briefings, and the ability to ask questions at said briefings. The Alternative Media Centre has complimentary Coke, Sprite, and ginger ale? The International Media Centre has fucking Pop Shoppe. (And, of course, free beer and wine.)
And then there are the measures that makes one think the Alternative Media Centre isn’t just meant to handle media overflow, but to actually introduce (or, if you prefer, reinforce) the pernicious element of class to the media scrum. The accreditation badges for everybody else here are big honking things with photographs and barcodes and scanny things; everybody has them, right down to the catering staff—except for AMC reporters, who instead get a dinky little card with no photograph that looks like you could fake one at Kinko’s for ten bucks. Both media centres are right inside the Princes’ Gate, but only “real” media people are allowed to drive through the Princes’ Gate; AMC-accredited folks have to go all the way around to the Dufferin Gate, which makes absolutely no sense considering that everybody parks in the same parking lot.

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Inside the Alternative Media Centre.


The NGOs who have arrived early all seem concerned with one thing: access to the International Media Centre. You can understand why. Government officials have suggested that perhaps the first-tier media or public officials will come over and visit the Alternative Media Centre, but that seems like suggesting that maybe that people who are bored of Toronto will find the big-city thrills they seek in Ajax. Besides, all you need to know about how many people the organizers expect to come over and give talks at the Alternative Media Centre can be summed up like this: at the start of the week, the raised stage they have for presentations had a long table with multiple microphones, of the sort you expect to see when seven to ten people are all speaking in a row. Now? There’s one lonely podium.
ONE, CARE Canada, WorldVision, RESULTS, PLAN, and UNICEF are all stuck here in the AMC, and every single one of them wants somebody in the International Media Centre because they’ve all been working for months to convince the Harper government that Canada should argue for the adoption of serious agendas to reduce child mortality and maternal health at the G20 summit. Sheila Nix, the U.S. executive director of ONE, says that their goal is to get the G8 to commit to tracking child mortality and maternal health statistics at the level of detail needed to actually figure out what works to prevent it. This is not small ball we’re talking about here, policy-wise. This is stuff that matters.
Now, within inches of the goal line, they’re off the field and waiting to see what Stephen Harper does. Nix complains that for NGOs, “this is a brand new level of segregation… this is the first time we’ve been in a separate place.” One NGO staffer, preferring to remain anonymous, muttered that the collective worry was that now, without the NGOs in the spotlight, Harper might choose to abandon the reproductive health elements of the agendas they’ve spent meeting after meeting pushing. (This seems unlikely. If Stephen Harper wants to torpedo parental planning funding, he’ll do it in public with a dead-eyed “fuck you” on his face.)

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Inside the Alternative Media Centre.


They’re not alone. A frustrated OECD trade union representative from France complains that “it’s always like this.” Representatives from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis And Malaria—a fund that was created by the G8 in the first place—sit around wondering what happens next. A group of five representatives of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty from various African nations sit at their laptops, presumably telling their readers about the David Miller press conference/ad pitch for Toronto. (Number of uses of “world class” in said presser: four. Number of positive comparisons to London, New York City and Paris: one apiece.) Rajesh Latchman, of the National Welfare Forum in South Africa, shakes his head and says “sadly, we don’t expect much to come out of this G20.” Then he cheers himself up by talking about how Bafana Bafana smacked around the French on Monday, demonstrating that the French definitely have their uses in this world.
That’s what life is like in the Alternative Media Centre. You wait a lot. You watch the TV feeds a lot. (At this point it’s mostly planes landing. A ONE staffer cracks “this is just like being at the airport!” Another responds, “there’s no free pastry at the airport.”) There’s no fake lake to cheer you up. You try not to notice that the catering staff have fancier security passes than you do. And you call everybody you can in an attempt to get the hell out of here.
After one sad half-day at the Alternative Media Centre, Christopher Bird and Christopher Drost received their clearance from the RCMP and were given badges for the International Media Centre. They will be reporting from there for the duration of the summit.
Photos by Christopher Drost/Torontoist.

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