Should the conference speaker always be neutral?

Martin Lewis, managing editor of Meetings & Incentive Travel reports from the Global Meeting Exchange for the meetings market in Montreux, Switzerland.

When Urs Eberhard came to the stage, he spoke of connectivity, efficiency, happy cows and better milk in Switzerland, among other things.

Urs is the deputy CEO of Tourism Switzerland and a naturally amusing public speaker but because he only had a five-minute slot he couldn’t ramble on about all the reasons for Switzerland’s success as a destination for meetings and events.

The next speaker at AccorHotels’ Global Meetings Exchange in Montreux had a bit more time on his hands, however, and economist Gerard Lyons’s throwaway line about the Swiss people’s average income being double that of the Brits didn’t go unnoticed in my neck of the woods. Not because it was relevant to Switzerland’s success in business tourism, but because most of us feel Brexit-battered and bruised and suddenly the land of contented cattle, efficient railways and double pay seemed a better option than the Mayhem back home.

Lyons, a self-confessed Brexiteer, is a decent presenter but I noticed my own prejudice getting in the way of my balance as a reporter because of his declared political position. As a devout Remainer, I was more than a little peeved by his early referral to me and my brethren as “Remainiacs” – the suggestion being that anyone who has enjoyed the peace, security, rights and legal protection afforded by the EU and wants it to continue is, by definition, bonkers. So we are nuts to enjoy the clean air, clean beaches, reduced roaming telephone charges, reciprocal health care and all the other benefits of EU membership, are we? Not misguided or ill-advised, but nuts?

Taking sides
So as he went on to present his version of economic indicators, I found myself taking fewer notes and listening out for his dogma instead. Of course he is entitled to his point of view and he was honest enough to fess up that he stands with the Johnsons, Rees-Moggs and Redmonds of the nation. But I found myself struggling to accept the rest of his presentation without looking for flaws. I was there as a reporter and therefore I shouldn’t accept without question what is said, but I found myself even more cynical than usual. Is this how we got here? A dogmatic position delivering smattering of mild abuse that in turn creates a kick-back of prejudice and resentment? I suspect it is.

When you call people names, you can’t expect them to quickly drop their deeply held convictions in favour of your perspective. Like many Brexiteers, Lyons’s view of the future was: a short, sharp downturn will be followed by years of sunlit uplands where the lame will walk again, the mute will talk again and we will export our lamb to New Zealand and our beef to Texas (I made the last bit up, but you get my drift!).

Who has the knowledge?
He may be right and I guess we will find out soon enough, but it got me thinking that our approach to politics is old-fashioned and not very different from a conference setting in that the person on the stage has the microphone and is generally assumed to know more than the audience about his or her subject. But do they? And, even if they do, do we trust them to deliver a balanced and unprejudiced interpretation of the data?

In a post-truth world, should we watch out for fake presentations as well as fake news? Or should we accept content will never be neutral and take it for granted that conference presenters, like politicians, will have their own agendas?