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Escaping the mob

The number of my press badge was 1407. It could have been 3400 or so, because that was the number of journalists, cameramen, television technicians, messengers, and sundry others recognized as covering the economic summit meeting of seven national leaders in London last June. I didn't want to go so far and never see the seven together except on TV - although seeing it on TV often becomes the print journalist's lot when it's a mob media event.

At the Democratic convention in July, some 12,000 newspeople got credentials; at the Republican convention there is another vast array. The TV cameramen are given the best spots. The print press is often better off, from a visual standpoint, watching the event on TV.

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Politics has had its mob media events for years. But the massing of the scribes is a relatively new phenomenon in my kind of economic journalism. They have more than a suspicion they are being used for political public relations, but they willingly play the game.

At the economic summit - with its few concrete accomplishments and many statesmanlike pictures for home audiences - journalists wondered if the massed media were there because the national leaders were, or vice versa. Probably most of the press never ever saw the seven leaders together in person - only on small or huge TV screens in the rabbit warren of meeting halls that made up the press center. Some of the seven heads of state or government did hold individual press conferences. But, at least for the print media, it was not really essential to watch in person the seven in action together.

Somehow, however, this displeased me. It just seemed incongruous to ''cover'' an event and not really be able to see it except electronically. So, when the US press spokesman at a morning briefing announced there was room for one print media person at a scheduled gathering of the summiteers, I quickly bid for the spot and got it, apparently without competition. President Reagan was to show the other leaders a model of the planned US space station, inviting their cooperation in the peaceful use of space.

I boarded a bus loaded mainly with cameramen and guides and was driven to a building adjoining Lancaster House, where the seven were meeting. We were frisked and passed through a metal detector, and then we sat around or played with an electronic information system for the press. After half an hour or so, our escorts took us over to the large room where the model sat, and, behind a rope, we of the media stood with our cameras or notebooks for another half-hour or more awaiting the summiteers.

With lots of time, I made a few notes. A portrait of James II on one wall, George II on the other. A red carpet. Two carved gold eagles supported a mantel, giving the room its name, the Eagle Room. A brass chandelier. The Royal Military Police guards had red caps, polished shoes, and red stripes down the legs of their black uniforms. Secret servicemen floated about, with radio plugs in their ears. Brocaded curtains hung by the door to the garden where, we were told, the seven would appear.

Sure enough, they eventually did, along with their finance and foreign ministers. Mr. Reagan showed Britain's Margaret Thatcher the model. Despite his years as an actor, he seemed very conscious of the television cameras following every move and word. Most of the other leaders took a peek at the model too. Francois Mitterrand never did get close enough for the TV cameras, perhaps because France considers itself something of a competitor in the space business.

After about 10 minutes Mrs. Thatcher said: ''Shall we go to lunch, gentlemen, when you are ready?'' They drifted out of the room, and we were guided away too.

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That was the extent of my personal coverage of the London seven. Ironically, I never used a word about it in my stories. The news had to come from the press conferences and the background interviews with whomever I could snag around the press center - ministers, press officials, and so on. But that's the way it is with mob media events.

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