How The ‘Fake News Media’ Prepared To Cover Helsinki’s Summit Circus

What we eventually see on TV is just the tip of the iceberg for international broadcasters reporting on this week's Helsinki Summit.

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Monitors at CNN's Helsinki studios show colour bars, July 2018 / Credit: News Now Finland

When President Niinistö’s office announced that a summit between Russia and America would be held in Helsinki, it sparked a mad dash from more than 1400 journalists to book flights to Finland, and find hotel rooms at the height of summer.

While the Foreign Ministry didn’t name a press centre location for almost a week, representatives from US TV networks couldn’t wait that long. They were already in Helsinki within a few hours of the summit announcement, looking for the ideal spot for hours of live broadcasts from the Finnish capital.

This is the story of how the ‘fake news media’ – as Donald Trump repeatedly calls them – gets ready at short notice for a big international summit.

Logistics For Helsinki Broadcasts

The mammoth logistics efforts to fly tons of equipment needed to set up temporary studios brought freight expert Chris Brown from his usual Rio de Janeiro base to Helsinki.

“In the context of everything we do for the broadcasters, it’s not a huge event. But it’s quite technical, and it’s rapid response” he says.

“The biggest challenge is in getting everything here quickly enough from various parts of the world. Especially with this event in particular with the football World Cup in Russia, a huge amount of broadcast material is in Russia. Because this summit was fairly last minute, there wasn’t a long planning period, equipment had to come from wherever it was available. For example CNN has equipment that came from both London and the United States” Brown tells News Now Finland.

Once the gear arrives at Helsinki Airport it has to be cleared through customs, with all the right paperwork; then delivered and unpacked at the broadcast venues in time for construction.

There’s so much equipment that broadcasters like CNN use special tracking software to keep tabs on every single piece of kit, every box and computer, to ensure they know where it is at all times.

Temporary engineering control room set up during Helsinki Summit, July 2018 / Credit: News Now Finland

How Do Reporters Prepare?

It was always clear that Finland was just the venue, and not the story. But still there’s a lot of homework to be done by reporters who came from 61 different countries – especially as no agenda was ever released. They had to prepare for the unexpected.

“I’m not sure Finland, and I don’t want to be rude, is that important in the story. Honestly, it could have happened anywhere” says Europe Editor James Mates from Britain’s ITV channel.

“Finland has a long tradition of facilitation, and always does it very well. This is the fourth of the big Washington Moscow summits. Some of the others were American Soviet rather than Russian” he adds.

The issues to be discussed between Presidents Trump and Putin during their meetings with advisers, and in private conversations remain a mystery. So correspondents must have a broad depth of knowledge to be ready to react to whatever might come up.

“I’m always reading for this sort of stuff to be honest. We knew this was coming for a while and it’s very much my area. The Putin summit, the whole situation, the background, Novichok, Crimea, election hacking, all this stuff was in the day-to-day coverage in the last few years” says Mates.

“I think the issues were all clear. Finland was a wonderful location and hosted it rather brilliantly but to be honest it wasn’t that relevant where they met, it was the fact they did meet, why they were meeting, for which there was no apparent purpose. What the agenda was, very unusual no apparent agenda, just free-form Trump diplomacy. It’s a continuation, this extraordinary rapprochement that Trump is trying to conduct with Putin at the same time that the rest of the world is going hang on, he’s behaving appallingly, you can’t reward him. We want you to confront him. And that he didn’t do” he explains.

Security Measures

Up to 2000 Finnish police were deployed on the streets of Helsinki during Monday’s summit. There were also military personnel involved in securing the capital, with divers searching the harbour near the Presidential Palace where all the key meetings took place.

In addition, US Secret Service and Kremlin security agents had their own missions to protect their presidents.

Despite all the security, and a partial lock-down of the city centre, these measures weren’t as intrusive as they might have been.

James Frater, a producer at CNN, was impressed at how peaceful the event was despite its intimacy.

The police exclusion zone was, Frater noted, smaller than in any other event of similar importance. People would not get anywhere near as close to the action in NATO, EU or G7 summits he says.

“There were trams running right behind the corner of the Presidential Palace,” Frater observed with amusement.

Despite the close quarters, Frater was amazed at how calm the event was. “Helsinki has been by far the most peaceful summit I have done so far” he tells News Now Finland.

Studio lighting at Fox News Channel’s rooftop studio at Allas Broadcast Centre, July 2018 / Credit: News Now Finland

Weather, Lighting & Navy Challenges  

One major factor affecting broadcasters in Helsinki for the summit was the weather.

As any local resident will tell you, it’s quite unexpected to be so hot in July!

That meant production assistants were clearing the shelves of air conditioners and fans to put in their makeshift newsrooms and on studio sets in the city centre to keep journalists and presenters cool – under studio lights the temperatures are hot enough, but Helsinki’s warm summer days made it worse.

The long white nights and late sunsets were also a challenge for lighting directors and stage managers, with the sun’s intensity and glare throwing up numerous problems.

And when a Finnish Coast Guard ship parked itself in the harbour near the Presidential Palace on the morning of the summit, the electronic signals it sent out played havoc with broadcast equipment.

Cables at Associated Press broadcast position during Helsinki Summit, July 2018 / Credit: News Now Finland

Packing Everything Up

As swiftly as the world’s media descended on Helsinki, they left again even faster.

By the early hours of Tuesday morning broadcasters were wrapping up their extended summit coverage.

On-air journalists were among the first to leave. Other editorial staff stayed a few hours to pack up their offices. Technical staff coiled up miles and miles of cables, shut down their satellites, unplugged the monitors and put everything back in boxes for logistics experts like Chris Brown to send through customs and ship back to all corners of the world.

“Going back, from my perspective, it’s much more intensive work. We have to pack it all up, make sure all the equipment is accounted for, because from a customs perspective for an event like this, all the equipment that comes in has to go out again, otherwise there are customs fees to be paid” he says.

Logistics expert Chris Brown works on his computer during Helsinki Summit, July 2018 / Credit: News Now Finland