ISE-SHIMA, Japan (Reuters) - In Japan, ostensibly to cover Prime Minister David Cameron's talks with other G7 leaders, traveling reporters had other things on their minds -- mainly next month's vote on whether Britain should ditch its membership of the European Union.
With the June 23 vote looming, British "hacks" who had paid thousands of pounds to watch Cameron's every move in Japan and to try to quiz him and his team on "Brexit", were frustrated to be swept off to a Japanese dance and music show miles from the summit venue.
Obsessed with one of the biggest events in modern British politics which was dominating the headlines at home, the disappointment of some in the press corps was palpable.
"We usually get decent access to both the prime minister and his team," one senior political journalist at a national newspaper, who declined to be named, grumbled. "This time we've got neither, it's a bit of a joke."
The situation was compounded by the fact that Cameron's media team, determined to concentrate on the official agenda of the Group of Seven talks, lacked his head of communications, who had been seconded to the "In" Europe campaign.
With his official spokeswoman also not able to be with him due to a personal commitment, Cameron was accompanied by less experienced press aides so the timing of the summit was less than ideal for both the prime minister and the journalists.
Cameron, joined by close aides including Europe adviser Tom Scholar, sat in the front section of the plane for the private charter flight to Japan, separated by a curtain from the around 20 members of the national media accompanying him. Towards the end of the 14-hour flight, Cameron came back to the press, setting out his aims for the summit before taking about 10 minutes of questions. In a sign of their jumpiness, Cameron's team asked in advance what topics would be asked.
Wearing a long-sleeved navy polo shirt, blue jeans and smart black shoes, and with his hands in his pockets, a seemingly relaxed Cameron greeted journalists and made small talk about whether people had managed to get much sleep.
As the media gathered round, Cameron complimented a reporter from the anti-EU Express newspaper. When someone asked if he was trying to get the paper to do a U-turn on Brexit, Cameron joked: "That is the sort of high ambition I have for this summit." Yet after the flight, during which four of the five non-G7 questions he was asked were EU-related and he was prompted by an aide to mention his concerns about making sure people registered to vote, Brexit hardly featured again until the end of the two-day summit. Cameron's media team seemed keen to avoid the subject and with the summit venue nearly an hour from the media center, Cameron himself did not do his usual round of broadcast clips or interviews during the meeting.
Instead, they preferred to brief mainly on non-EU issues from tackling antimicrobial resistance to sending a warship to combat people- and arms-smuggling off Libya. A spokesman said Cameron had come to the summit totally focused on the G7 agenda, which did not formally include Brexit. To keep the press pack occupied, as well as the Japanese traditional dance performance, there was also a trip to the sacred Ise-Jingu shrine G7 leaders had visited separately.
Lacking stories on the elephant in the room, UK media were forced to look for news elsewhere.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at his G7 news conference was asked about key Brexit campaigner ex-London mayor Boris Johnson, who like Cameron attended the elite Eton school and who has been tipped as a possible future premier. "It is time for him to come back to Brussels,” Juncker said of Johnson, who lived in Brussels while a journalist at the telegraph newspaper, “in order to check in Brussels if everything he is telling the British people is in line with reality - I do not think so."
Official figures on Thursday showing net migration to Britain reached 333,000 last year, its second highest level and more than three times a target set by Cameron in 2010, also provided news fodder. During the summit's only briefing with the press, a UK government spokesman was repeatedly pressed by reporters about why, with immigration a top voter concern and key element of the EU debate, Cameron was not making a comment on the figures. "We are not ducking the issue," he responded, saying Cameron had a busy schedule and a minister back in Britain would comment for the government. But with the spokesman also saying Cameron and Barack Obama had had time to chat about a game of golf they played during the U.S. president's visit to Britain, media were not convinced. The front page of Britain's best-selling newspaper The Sun on Friday featured a picture of Cameron with eyes closed and his fingers in his ears alongside the headline: "PM ignores bombshell stats: As another 330,000 migrants prove we cannot control our own borders, Cameron responds 'La-la la-la la..'".
"DAVID Cameron turned a deaf ear to the nation’s immigration fears yesterday as figures showed net migration hit a near-record 333,000 last year," the Sun said.
"The PM, in Japan for a G7 summit, refused to answer questions on the shocking statistic even though immigration is the No1 concern for millions of EU referendum voters."
Despite declining circulations, newspapers still wield political influence in Britain, and The Sun, with an average circulation of 1.7 million a day, claims to have determined election outcomes in the past. In 1992, its front page famously asserted it had won the contest for the Conservatives. Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp ultimately owns the paper, takes an active interest in British politics.
While the summit’s final declaration included a warning on the economic impact of Brexit, it was a small line in a 32-page document, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande saying it had not been discussed.
Determined not to go home without getting their fill of Brexit stories, four of the five journalists chosen to ask questions at Cameron’s closing news conference probed him on Brexit-related issues.
Did the prime minister stand by comments made before the campaign started that Britain could thrive outside the EU?, he was asked by the Daily Telegraph, 59 percent of whose readers back Brexit according to a YouGov poll in March.
“Britain is an amazing country, we can find our way whatever the British people choose,” Cameron responded, before going on to detail why he thought Britain would be better off ‘In’.
Yet Saturday’s newspaper front pages confirmed he had not succeeded in winning over The Express, whose owner Richard Desmond donated more than one million pounds to anti-EU UK Independence Party during last year's national election campaign.
“Cameron’s shock admission: we will thrive outside the EU,” read its headline in large letters.
Editing by Mark John