Dear Blog Readers,
On Monday I spent 15 hours on the Italian Aircraft Carrier Garibaldi covering a summit between Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Hollande. The three leaders visited the Italian Island of Venotene and then arrived on the Garibaldi by helicopter for a press conference.
The summit was an attempt by the three leaders to give Europe a symbolic boost following Brexit but it was a bit of a press mess.
Here’s my behind the scenes experience with a frustrated press corps trying to cover the event. About 150 journalists, camerapersons, producers, and photographers showed up at the Pisacane Pier on the Bay of Naples at 10:30 sharp Monday morning to get our accreditation and go through security checks. We were loaded down with computers, tripods, liveUs, cameras, cables etc. By about 11am we were climbing up an exterior staircase onto the Garibaldi excited about taking part in a interesting and visual news story.
The Garibaldi is an aircraft carrier that is the lead ship on Operation Sophia, an EU operatoin targeting human traffickers smuggling migrants across the Mediterranean.
We were ushered into a large hangar in the belly of the Garibaldi where dozens of tables had been set up with power supply. We were immediately given the password for two wifi accounts, and then the ship left port.
We were just a few minutes into the trip when I realized the Wifi was not working and I began to get agitated. A British team from SKY UK was sitting at my table and they began to panic too. In 2016 journalists can’t survive without wifi, we start losing our marbles. The last story I was on where the Wifi did not work at a location was when Pope Francis landed in Havana, Cuba in September 2015. The Wifi at the Jose Marti Airport in Havana did not work, but it did work at the press center. But back to the Garibaldi…
Wifi became a 15-hour obsession for all of us as we paced the carrier.
A little more on the rest of the trip though….
The hundreds of sailors aboard the Garibaldi bent over backwards to make our trip successful. They escorted us around the ship and happily gave us information.
At lunchtime they served us a fantastic meal with various pasta dishes including pasta with eggplant, pasta with tomato sauce, and lasagna. There was beef straccetti with arugula and plum tomatoes, roasted salmon, pizza, focaccia, rice with vegetables, fried zucchini, potatoes, carrots, grilled eggplant, and honeydew melon, watermelon and peaches for dessert.
For many of us who have been on US aircraft carriers, the luncheon was a far cry from what you get aboard a US ship – hamburgers, French fries, hot dogs and macaroni and cheese mostly. (See blog post “The Tailhook and the Elegant Dinner Party“)
Interestingly, the Italians were also very relaxed about smoking and security. Mostly they let us wander certain areas of the ship and smokers were allowed to smoke on one lower deck.
From past experience on aircraft carriers, I know that working on one involves lots of climbing up and down ladders. When we arrived at the pier in the morning I was surprised to see many of my female colleagues in pretty dresses, and summer sandals. One Italian was even in spike heels and a white tailleur. I have no idea how she got around, it was hard enough for me in my pants and sneakers going up and down. At one point I was coming off the flight deck on an exterior staircase carrying the tripod and I got a little dizzy looking way down below at the waves. Of course, I just had to stop and take a photo.
By the end of the 15-hour trip, according to my cell phone, I had walked a total of 7,7 kilometers and gone up and down 13 flights. Phew, no wonder I was wiped out.
So why were the three leaders going all the way to Ventotene for this summit? Here is a little background from my TV story:
In 1941 Italian anti-fascist intellectuals Altiero Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi wrote what is known as the “Ventotene Manifesto” in which they laid out their vision of a “free and united Europe” with the elimination of national, sovereign states. At the time of the writing, the two men were being held prisoner on the island under the Mussolini government and Hitler reigned in Germany. The prisoners took for granted the defeat of Nazism and Fascism and envisioned a future of a peaceful, unified Europe.
But as Renzi, Merkel and Hollande took off in a helicopter from Naples to fly to the island, they were discussing a Europe far from the continent once envisioned by the Italian prisoners. The June 23 Brexit vote has left the dream of a European Union in shatters, a massive influx of migrants from Africa, the Middle East and Asia has created tensions and prompted the closing of borders and the resurgence of nationalist movements, and a steep rise in terror attacks has plagued the continent leaving Europe disoriented and flagging.
The three leaders wanted to launch a new strategy for the future of Europe with a series of proposals from foreign policy to defense and economic questions that they will bring to the table on September 16th at the EU summit in Bratislava, Slovenia on September 16.
But while the three leaders were making their way in the helicopter to Ventotene in the helicopter, the 150 journalists on board were becoming increasing frenetic without a properly functioning Wifi.
After about 4 hours on board we neared Ventotene and the crew brought us on the flight deck to get a few shots. We all scrambled about frantically, filming, photographing, tweeting, posting as we took advantage of cell phone lines working on deck. That brief Wifi respite did not last long as we were once again hustled into the hangar so they could set up for the leaders’ arrival.
Sitting beside me at the table in the hangar, the SKY UK team was getting steadily more aggravated. “These Italians are like the keystone cops,” their cameraman muttered. “It is a PR disaster,” the correspondent declared, “there’s no better way to ensure that every report on this summit is going to be skewed.” And as if to reinforce this, he periodically turned to me and said something like, “well you are based in Italy, Renzi is flagging in the polls, right?” and “this mission that the Garibaldi is involved in to stop human smugglers is obviously going badly given all the migrants that continue to come, right?”
I was getting a bit fed up with all their grumbling and whining, but the bottom line was they were right – the wifi wasn’t working and I was in the same boat.
Speaking of the boat, I noticed there were lots of women sailors on board. I happened to bump into the Commander while I was getting an espresso and he told me that 27-percent of the crew are women. He said they even hold some of the most physical jobs including Boatswain.
But back to the grumbling in the hangar….
One thing that Italians always score high on is aesthetics. On this particular story the Renzi government could not have chosen a more picturesque backdrop. By the time the helicopter with Renzi, Merkel and Hollande landed on the deck, we were all seated in elegant, crème-colored director chairs facing three transparent podiums, flags from Germany, Italy and France perfectly framed the leaders with Ventotene behind. A sailboat conveniently passed by behind them as Hollande was speaking.
The content of the press conference was rather minimum. The leaders each made a statement and each took one question – one from a German, one from a French journalist and one from an Italian—before they headed off for their meeting.
Renzi declared that Europe is the “biggest opportunity for the next generation”. French President Francois Hollande said, “Europe must be a political power in service of peace,” and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said “Faced with Islamist terrorism…. we need to do more for our internal and external security. Cooperation in the field of defence can be strengthened…Exchange and cooperation among the intelligence services must be intensified.”
It was short and sweet.
Then the three leaders headed off and we were left on deck frantically editing and filing. The Prime Minister’s press office said we would have one hour before the ship would start moving and we would lose our Wifi. I pulled out my computer and dragged three director’s chairs around me. I madly edited, trying to sort out the best shots, soundbites and get the translation from French, German and Italian into English. I barely managed to transmit my story before we were kicked off the flight deck.
By the way, while we were filing, the leaders were having their working dinner. The Prime Minister’s press office told me that the leaders were in a room off the flight deck enjoying a menu that included Trofie all’Orata e Basilico (a short pasta with bream fish and basil), Salmon with Herbs, and fruit with pineapple mousse).
We were promised that we could return to the flight deck to work some more later, but it turned out that was too dangerous once we had departed. So back to the hangar and back to the non-functioning wifi. Leave it to say that the press conference ended at 7pm and I was unable to send my final edit until the ship sailed past the island of Ischia at midnight. Shortly after midnight, they announced that it would take us another two hours to return to shore. So the crabby, discontented press corps returned to the hangar and snoozed in our seats as the Garibaldi chugged its way back to Naples arriving at 2am.
NOTE: NO TIME TIME TO FINISH OFF THIS POST PROPERLY AS THERE HAS BEEN A BIG EARTHQUAKE IN ITALY AND I HAVE TO COVER
Trisha is a TV journalist working for AP TV News in Rome. She is married to an Italian and is a Mamma of three.