Back in spring and early summer, we were all patting ourselves on the back, keen to nurture a warm, fuzzy feeling of collective self-congratulation at how bravely we had stood up to the brutal Chinese regime that was oppressing free speech in plucky little Tibet, bulldozing its own citizens’ houses to build opulent Olympic stadia and imprisoning critics of its regime. The Tibetan pro-democracy protests that took place when the Olympic torch was carried through London (guarded all the way by a cohort of sinister, anonymous Chinese security officials in sky-blue romper suits whose physical attacks on any potential ‘dissidents’ remain, strangely, without censure) allowed news editors across the media at both ends of the political spectrum to moralise endlessly about the rights and wrongs of allowing a country with such a dubious human rights record to host the games. At the same time, protests in Tibet (as well as the Chinese government’s brutal response to them) were given pride of place on the evening news bulletins. Across the country, as we came in from work and put the kettle on, we were bombarded with images of Chinese soldiers and police in riot gear chasing, beating and arresting unarmed civilian protesters. As the Tibet situation turned into a PR catastrophe, it looked very much as though China’s big Olympic ‘coming out’ party was going to be ruined.
But then the Chinese didn’t reckon on the fickleness of the world’s press. In Britain, we have long prided ourselves on the integrity of our news services, on the unflappability of our foreign correspondents and on the unbiased record of solid, reliable reportage provided by news services like the BBC. But even the most determined foreign correspondent likes fireworks. From the moment the Olympics started in a blaze of pyrotechnics and posturing, the press forgot about the oppression and the beatings; they overlooked the fact that the Chinese had banned taxi drivers from talking to their passengers in case they should let slip any ‘off-message’ comment about the games; they conveniently forgot about China’s open material and moral support for the Sudanese government’s genocidal ambitions in Darfur; the story of Ye Guozhu who was beaten and arrested for protesting when his home was bulldozed to make way for a stadium couldn’t have been further from their minds. All eyes focused on the leotard-clad, steroid-fuelled supermen and women striding around the stadium that had been built on the site of Mr Ye’s house. Whether or not Mr Ye was allowed to watch from his prison cell is still not known.
And then we started winning and it got worse. On August 13th, John Ray, ITN’s experienced China correspondent, was beaten up, arrested and had his equipment confiscated for daring to cover a group of protestors committing an act of unimaginable horror: they tried to unfurl a Tibetan flag. This got a little coverage; articles in the inside pages of most national papers, reports on the BBC and ITN and the odd outraged snipe from a liberal comment columnist. When, six days later, Team GB exceeded its medal target, however, the whole British press erupted in a congratulatory, patriotic orgy of back-slapping and hero-worshiping. There is no question that the athletes involved deserved much of the praise they received and no question either that British sporting success deserves celebration (it is not something, after all, that happens very often). But our media’s blanket celebration of the Olympics in the most glowing terms imaginable at the expense of the abuses being committed by the hosts even as the Games took place surely constituted a wholesale departure of the most basic journalistic ethics.
It’ll be our turn next, of course. In order to get London’s creaking transport infrastructure ready to receive the hundreds of thousands of extra visitors to the capital in 2012, funding is being sucked away from regional projects all around Britain; sports clubs, theatres, art galleries and academic departments in Belfast, Glasgow, Cardiff, Manchester, Bristol, Colchester and Newcastle are suffering cut-backs so that a dilapidated corner of East London can, in four years time, bask in the temporary glory of a few steroid-fuelled Russians jumping over fences, throwing pointy sticks at each other and chasing each other round a race track. In April 2008, 60% of Londoners were opposed to the 2012 Olympics (the numbers outside London were considerably higher); although no poll has been undertaken on the same scale since the Beijing Olympics, smaller surveys suggest that 60% are now in favour. Thanks to the positive spin put on the games by our media, the blanket coverage of Team GB’s unexpected success and the deliberate blind eye turned to China’s numerous human rights indiscretions, the Olympic bandwagon is up and rolling again in Britain. Somehow, it all seems a little too convenient.
Ben Snook is a writer and researcher. Although he lives in London, he is currently in the final stages of a PhD in tenth-century history and literature at Selwyn College, Cambridge. His collected thoughts can be found at Your Correspondent Writes. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2008 Ben Snook