Editor's Notes: Davos – a festival of irrelevance and hypocrisy

Christian May
Follow Christian
Source: Getty

Davos brings the same delights every year.

From the press release about the number of private jet movements to Oxfam’s annual criticism of the global super-rich, there are predictable elements to this week-long event. Another thing you can always be assured of is that some staggering hypocrisy will be on display.

I came across a near perfect demonstration of this rule when glancing at a live stream of the event and clocked the face of Rwanda’s increasingly tyrannical President Paul Kagame... smiling at U2’s Bono.

“This will be good for a laugh,” I thought – and it was.

Also on stage was the IMF’s Christine Lagarde, and the topic for this cosy chat was “inclusive and sustainable development”.

Lagarde’s main point was on the importance of “good governance” – and there was plenty of nodding at this. Of course, she’s not entirely well positioned to promote this concept since the IMF’s own watchdog says the organisation’s conduct has “raised issues of accountability and transparency”.

She was also found guilty of negligence by a French court over her handling of a fraud case from her time as the French finance minister.

Still, if she was on thin ice Kagame has fallen through it.

He’s beguiled the development community with clean streets and impressive rural WiFi, but according to Human Rights Watch “tight restrictions on freedom of speech and political space remain in place... the authorities detain people unlawfully in unofficial detention centres”.

They also note the use of torture and the regime’s penchant for disappearing its political opponents. And there he sits, discussing good governance at Davos.

Meanwhile Bono, recently named in the Panama Papers leak as a beneficiary of a creative Malta/Guernsey investment scheme, said capitalism was a “wild beast” that needs to “be tamed”.

It was a sorry spectacle indeed, and one that encapsulated the chief criticism laid against the Davos gathering: that it’s little more than a PR exercise for a remote and hypocritical elite.

Not Fake News

I’m quite used to giving speeches, but it’s amazing what a different experience it is when the audience are between 13 and 17 years old.

This was my challenge a week ago at Bodmin College in Cornwall. I spoke for an hour about journalism and the media, taking questions every couple of minutes. One of the first questions was “how much do you get paid?”

Alongside this youthful and perfectly reasonable curiosity I took questions on everything from the business model of a free newspaper to bias in the media.

The students were a testament to Bodmin College, being thoughtful, intelligent and engaged.

One issue dominated more than any other: fake news. I asked at the start how many of them had paid for a newspaper this year, and three hands went up.

When I asked if any of them felt they’d encountered fake news online every single hand in the hall went up. I left them with the thought that the problem of the latter issue could be solved by revaluating the former.

Choice words

As is to be expected, the Brexit debate is focusing in on the specifics: the backstop, readiness at ports and supply chains. Amid all this, I find myself reflecting on what brought us here.

Remainers are confident in explaining why Brexiters voted as they did – citing hostility to foreigners or a nostalgia for empire.

I dismiss these daft explanations, and it strikes me that beneath the many and varied reasons why 17.4m people ticked the Leave box is a fundamental point about the relationship between government and the governed.

In almost every area of life we enjoy more choice and more autonomy.

From Netflix to pension freedoms, we have gained agency where once limited options existed.

This development has touched almost all services and relationships – apart from politics, which has remained something that is done to people, rather than something people truly participate in.

I think more than anything the referendum gave people a chance to reclaim politics, and they seized it.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.