A curious meeting took place at the Baltic Exchange recently when shipping journalists had to answer questions, for once, rather than ask them.

The Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers, usually a rather low profile organization, held a press reception in an effort to find out how its members could improve relations with the press and raise public awareness about their profession.London may be one of the most important shipping centers in the world, but there is little general interest in Britain in the maritime industry any more.

Even H. Clarkson & Co., the world's largest shipbroking firm and a publicly quoted U.K. company, is virtually unknown outside the shipping community. As one guest at the meeting lamented, shipowners in Norway are practically treated like film stars, and yet in Britain there is virtually no media coverage of shipping except in the specialist press.

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SHIPPING EXECUTIVES in the United Kingdom hope the appointment of Sir Jeffrey Sterling, chairman of Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., as president of the General Council of British Shipping for the coming year, will help draw attention to the contribution shipping makes to the U.K. economy.

Sir Jeffrey is one of the country's best known businessmen and a confidante of the prime minister. He admits shipping has an image problem but has promised a major campaign to increase public awareness and understanding of shipping. He has even persuaded Margaret Thatcher to be guest of honor at the council's annual dinner. The P&O Group owns P&O Containers Ltd., the country's biggest and most successful container shipping line.

The selection of Sir Jeffrey as the industry's figurehead could backfire, however. In the first ever case of its kind, another P&O subsidiary, P&O European Ferries (Dover) Ltd., is being charged with manslaughter over the deaths of nearly 200 people when its Herald of Free Enterprise ferry capsized outside the Belgian Port of Zeebrugge three years ago. The trial is scheduled to start at the Old Bailey in September, the company having recently failed to persuade a judge to throw the case out.

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ON ONE KEY ISSUE, Sir Jeffrey is as unsure as everyone else. Even at this late stage in the Uruguay Round of multilateral trade talks at the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in Geneva that are scheduled to finish in

December, there are few shipping people who really know what is going on or are keeping in close touch with how the negotiations are progressing.

That does not stop the industry from having strong views on the subject. There is broad consensus within the maritime community that shipping should be kept out of any agreement on trade in services. Even though the aim of the Uruguay Round is to liberalize world trade, the shipping industry is convinced that it would mean an extra layer of bureaucracy and regulation.

Negotiators in Geneva privately admit that there is an enormous amount of ignorance in the shipping industry about the purpose of the Uruguay Round. ''There's no understanding of what it's all about at all," one official said.

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SOME SHIPPING COMPANIES have been active lobbyists, but most seem anxious to keep away from Geneva rather than make a positive contribution to negotiations. Only a few weeks remain for the industry to make its voice heard in the GATT talks if it so chooses.

The maritime transport working party will meet at the beginning of July to

draft annotations regarding the general principles and procedures of a services agreement. The final draft framework should be in place by the end of July in preparation for ministerial agreement in December.

As one GATT official commented, the maritime industry is leaving to very late to find out what the Uruguay Round is about.