A gold medal for press freedom
By Jackson Diehl,
So what’s the verdict on London’s staging of the 2012 Olympics?
Mind you, the Games don’t begin until Friday. But these blistering early judgments come not from dyspeptic Frenchmen or other Anglophobes but from senior British government officials, members of Parliament — and, of course, the London press.
That’s why I’m going to love these Olympics. Whatever else happens (Go, Katie Ledecky!) Britain is going to put on a show of what it means to have uninhibited media and a robust democracy. A world that was mostly awed by the authoritarian spectacle staged by Beijing in 2008 is going to see a very different exhibition.
The fun actually started long before the first athletes arrived. As my colleague Anne Applebaum reported then, the home media assault on the London Games began at the handover ceremony in Beijing in August 2008 — described by the Daily Telegraph as “a British fiasco.” The paper likened the musical performance of Led Zeppelin star Jimmy Page to “a badly tuned transistor radio in a tin bucket.”
That was mere throat-clearing. Anyone reading British newspapers the past few weeks could have been convinced that a nightmarish catastrophe was unfolding along the Thames. Heathrow Airport, it was said, was near gridlock. A major highway would fail to open. Security was collapsing. And athletes who did not choke on London’s smog would drown in the endless rain.
So far, none of that has happened. The lines at Heathrow moved suprisingly well last week, traffic has been tolerable and there have been no attacks by the waves of terrorists supposedly infilitrating the country thanks to incompetent border guards. (It is still raining, of course.) No matter; other calamities have been detected. One bus carrying athletes went astray and took four hours to reach the Olympic village! What’s more, the cafe there lost its water supply for several hours!
Prime Minister David Cameron has already been reduced to begging the press for mercy. “Let’s not call this the wet and soggy Olympics,” he pleaded. Too late.
Now, it’s possible some audiences around the world will be swayed by all this snarkiness. But — assuming that the dire predictions of floods and terrorism don’t come true — I’m guessing that at least some will be impressed by the contrast between the cacophony in London and the “harmony” imposed on Beijing in 2008.
Then, international journalists arriving at the Games could find no gloomy reports on China — because the regime had censored the Internet, blocking sites from the BBC to Amnesty International. There were no Chinese critics to interview; they had been rounded up and imprisoned, or shipped far from Beijing, months before the Opening Ceremonies. Critical outsiders were denied visas.
In an empty fulfillment of promises made to the International Olympic Committee, Beijing set up three areas for political demonstrations, then refused to grant anyone a permit to enter them. When two women in their 70s asked for permission to protest being evicted from their homes, they were sentenced to spend a year in a labor camp.
World leaders heaped praise on China for the brilliant choreography of the Opening and Closing Ceremonies and the orderly management of the competitions. But Human Rights Watch said the event was “marred by a well-documented surge in violations of the rights of free expression and association as well as media freedom.” Amnesty International said “the authorities have stepped up repression of dissident voices in their efforts to present an image of ‘stability’ and ‘harmony’ to the outside world.”
No one will accuse Cameron’s otherwise besieged government of that. And it’s not necessarily the case that all the disharmony has been counterproductive. Amid the welter of controversy one semi-serious problem has been identified: A private company hired to provide thousands of security guards failed to produce all the personnel it promised, and some of those it delivered were poorly trained.
The government has had to throw military and police units into the breach. It seems probable that the result will be a net improvement in security at the Games — thanks to the tidal wave of news coverage and angry parliamentary hearings in which Britain’s home secretary and the chief executive of the private security firm have been subjected to withering questioning.
The company chief, Nick Buckles, “was forced to agree,” reported the Guardian, that “the episode had been a ‘humiliating shambles’ that had left his company’s reputation in tatters.” British democracy is a tough sport — but a lot more rewarding to watch than Chinese “harmony.”
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