“The paintings at the old master picture gallery are wonderful!” gushed the LVMH director Marie-Josée Kravis, as she wafted stylishly back to the conference. “You simply must go and have a look.” It was a charming and engaging answer to my question, even if my question had been: “Do you think Bilderberg will hold a press conference this year?”
It is possible, as a Bilderberg steering committee member, that she has forgotten what the words press conference mean. The phrase must have sounded like a baffling mishmash of alien syllables, so Kravis panicked and talked about art instead.
I turned to her husband, the billionaire investor Henry Kravis, scuttling along by her side. “How’s business at KKR?” I asked. Henry Kravis tightened his Wall Street jaw into a kind of terrifying aborted smile, and in the distance a dog howled. It is just as well that Marie-Josée Kravis is an art lover. She married someone who was painted by Francisco Goya.
As Henry maintained his grim silence, the pair were ushered in through the security cordon. Luckily, a few other delegates had nipped out for bit of sightseeing during a break in the schedule, and I managed to buttonhole the Italian financier and longstanding Bilderberg insider Franco Bernabè as he strolled anonymously across a square in Dresden. I asked again about a press conference. A reasonable question, I thought, considering the number of senior politicians at the conference – four finance ministers, two prime ministers, three German cabinet members, a vice-president of the European commission, the head of the Swiss parliament … The list goes on.
Bernabè laughed and nodded towards the conference venue. “There are quite a few of your colleagues in there. Members of the press. Journalists.” He seemed genuinely tickled by this irony and chuckled his way back inside.
I was glad I was able to lighten Bernabè’s day, but I found his remark thoroughly depressing. A major political summit, one of the biggest in the geopolitical calendar, and pretty much the only mainstream journalists who show up are inside the conference, bound by the omertà of Bilderberg.
Holding politicians to account is one thing. Holding the door open for the Irish finance minister, Michael Noonan, as he heads back in for a second breakfast before an arduous morning spent discussing the European economy behind closed doors with the chairman of HSBC, is another.
I suppose it would be acceptable, just about, if NBC, Bloomberg and the Financial Times – which have journalists inside Bilderberg – were in Dresden covering the summit. But they are not. I spoke to BBC television news about a week before the conference began, to ask if it was sending anyone along. The journalist I contacted sighed and explained why not. “The thing is, we’re sending so many people to the Euros,” they said.
If I were a member of a technocratic elite that wanted its influence on public policy kept under wraps, I would hear that and think job done. Decades of making it difficult for the press to report on the summit has led to a profound reluctance on the part of the media to bother trying.
Marcello Brecciaroli, a journalist from the Italian TV channel La7, told he shocked to witness how heavy the security was. “You have 1,000 policemen around a demonstration of 15 people. You have a circle of 15 police officers searching one man. It’s crazy,” he said. I have seen reporters in Dresden with their bags emptied on the pavements and picked through by police officers. At least two that I know of were threatened physically.
For journalists, Bilderberg is the polar opposite of a G7 jolly or a giant sporting jamboree. No goodie bags or free champagne bar here, just police cordons, mobile phone jamming and the chance to get jabbed in the arm by overzealous Turkish secret service operatives, as happened to my wife.
Everyone’s mobile is blocked here. Mine has not worked for days. It is the perfect metaphor for Bilderberg: communication lockdown. Being here and trying to report on this event is not easy at times. Mainstream journalists are human beings and would much sooner go through an open door than bash their heads against a locked one.
In their absence, the door has been forced ajar by the alternative media. Year after year, I witness independent journalists and bloggers grappling gamely with the silence, trying to get information out. Instead of NBC, you have Dan Dicks. In place of the Financial Times, there is Luke Rudkowski. Rather than the BBC, Rob Dew of Infowars is running down the street behind the former CIA director David Petraeus, who now works for Henry Kravis. Petraeus got away, but Dew was there, putting in the effort.
As the years go by, however, there are signs that the mainstream media might be finding ways to talk sensibly about Bilderberg, even if it has not turned up. For a start, news agencies have started coming. Getty Images and Reuters were both here. That is a huge step in the right direction. Local newspapers have been outside the Taschenbergpalais every day, the German tabloid Bild made it down from Berlin and Sky News Australia used a local crew to put together a report.
Overall, there is a marked increase in serious analysis of the conference. As facts about Bilderberg’s funding and operation are gradually being pieced together, and its function as a key lobbying enterprise for big oil and big banking is more easily perceived. Information about the event makes it easier to critique. This virtuous circle means that journalists are more likely to stitch a serious story together and less inclined to hide behind an ironic distance, resorting to tired old conspiracy theories.
We are close to a tipping point. All that is needed is a final tickle under the chin of the mainstream press, and the reporters will come.
The timing is perfect. The more reticent older guard of Bilderberg is gradually being replaced by a younger generation, particularly from Silicon Valley, more at ease with the idea of opening up to the press. The PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, one of the more youthful members of Bilderberg’s steering committee, made a formal statement to journalists during his Dresden walkabout. The tireless Luke Rudkowski asked him a clever question about his libertarian values, and Thiel responded. In the closest thing in decades to a Bilderberg press conference, he said he thought it was always important to exchange views with people, no matter what their perspectives are.
“I think we have a lot of problems in our society … We need to find ways to talk to people where not everything is completely transparent. Libertarianism is not synonymous with radical transparency. That’s often an argument the Stasi would make, in East Germany, where everything had to be monitored by society. And I think often you have the best conversations in smaller groups, where not everything is being monitored; that’s how you get very honest conversations and how you can think better about the future.”
I’m not holding up Peter Thiel as a champion of the free press. Gawker’s blood is still wet on his hands. But at least he spoke to us. It’s a start.
The statement, however, reveals is a profound confusion at the heart of Bilderbergian logic. Thiel argues that transparency is a pervasive problem for honest dialogue, that it has to be overcome at events such as Bilderberg for the sake of the future. But the radical transparency that he talks about, the all-seeing surveillance of everything, is not what journalists and transparency campaigners are pushing for. The transparency that we want to see in our politics is not incompatible with personal privacy. They are two different spheres.
In East Germany, conversations were not monitored by society. It was society that was monitored by the Stasi. I find it odd to hear Thiel, who is obviously an intelligent man, say something so wrongheaded.
Of course, the societal transparency demanded by the Stasi went hand in hand with a heavily guarded privacy at the top of the administration. It is the same, I am afraid to say, at Bilderberg. Privacy is not a problem for the billionaires and the heads of transnational corporations that run it. It is just a matter of how many rings of riot police they want around the venue.
Meanwhile, the people outside are having their identities checked, being filmed by police and closely monitored online. Transparency is no issue for Bilderberg. But it is a problem for the public.
The transparency of our digital lives is what is radical. As a board member of Facebook and the chairman of the data analysis company Palantir, Thiel knows more than most how transparent we are. It is a subject that has been discussed at Bilderberg itself. One of the items on the agenda in 2014 was the question: “Does privacy exist?” The chairman of Bilderberg’s steering committee, Henri de Castries, was asked recently if privacy was dead, to which he replied simply: “Yes.” It might be dead for most of us, but privacy seems to be alive and kicking at Bilderberg.
What happens now? Press interest in the event is gradually increasing, with coverage becoming more widespread and serious. On its website, the Bilderberg group claims that the “annual press conference … was stopped due to a lack of interest.” Leaving aside whether that is true or not, what we can reasonably say is this: if lack of interest is no longer a problem, if enough journalists have questions to ask, then Bilderberg might want to think about reinstating its yearly press conference. After all, it’s nothing new for them. They always used to do it.