Greenwich’s Olympic flame still has more smoke than fire

Elton John once sang that sorry seemed to be the hardest word. If you’re the BBC’s London news operation, then “sorry” is a free plug on your evening news bulletin. Especially when it comes to the Olympics and Greenwich Park.

In April, BBC London’s Olympics reporter Adrian Warner broadcast a report claiming that peace had broken out in the row over staging Olympic equestrian events in Greenwich Park. It’s still online here, with a caption that’s slightly more misleading than the report. Even I knew it was dodgy – and I’m excited about the Olympics coming to my neighbourhood.

So how did anti-horses group NOGOE get its right to reply? Well, it was the TV journalism equivalent of allowing the other team a shot at goal after a refereeing cock-up. It was a bit odd, and unfortunately you won’t find it on the BBC News website like the original offending report. Hopefully, you’ll find it here for the next week – if you see a bulletin which has the fact that it’s a bit hot as the lead story, and buries a startling story about the death of Ian Tomlinson, you’ve got it. It’s just after a bit about the MP for “Luton and Wanstead” stepping down. I feel ghastly for putting the boot into my former employer, but this wasn’t a brilliant example of how the BBC serves London…

“Now, putting up proest banners near Olympic banners during the games in 2012 could lead to you being arrested and the police raiding your home. A human rights lawyer has told BBC London that she worries that freedom of speech in the capital will be severely restricted during the event. Here’s our special report…”

Warner introduces a NOGOE-r, preparing his badges, T-shirts, and other campaign stuff – and then surprises him with what’s in the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act 2006, signed into law over three years ago under very little scrutiny. Not new stuff, then. Trouble is, you’ll see the odd phrase highlighted, but Warner doesn’t actually go into detail about what’s in the act, created the Olympic Delivery Authority, but is also intended to help crack down on illicit advertising at and around Olympic events.

Trouble is, Warner was so vague about the details of the legislation that I was left scratching my head – would this really mean police cracking NOGOE-rs’ heads come the summer of 2012, dragging them away from their homes and seizing front window posters about Saxon graves? He’s got a blog on the BBC website – but there was no further background stuff there. In fact, he hasn’t updated it since January.

The real answer is – we don’t know. The legislation is pretty ambiguous – there’s certainly the potential for abuse here. The relevant passage is on advertising regulations. I’ve stuck the bits that stick out for me in bold.

(1) The Secretary of State shall make regulations about advertising in the vicinity of London Olympic events.

(2) In making the regulations the Secretary of State—

(a) shall aim to secure compliance with obligations imposed on any person by the Host City Contract,

(b) shall have regard to any requests or guidance from the International Olympic Committee, and

(c) shall also have regard to amenity and public safety.

(3) The regulations shall specify, or provide criteria for determining—

(a) the places in respect of advertising in which the regulations apply,

(b) the nature of the advertising in respect of which the regulations apply, and

(c) what is, or is not, to be treated for the purposes of the regulations as advertising in the vicinity of a place.

(4) The regulations may apply in respect of advertising of any kind including, in particular

(a) advertising of a non-commercial nature, and

(b) announcements or notices of any kind.

(5) The regulations may apply in respect of advertising in any form including, in particular

(a) the distribution or provision of documents or articles,

(b) the display or projection of words, images, lights or sounds, and

(c) things done with or in relation to material which has or may have purposes or uses other than as an advertisement.

So, potentially, there is room for abuse. And with the Met Police’s recent record in dealing with protest, it’s certainly a cause for concern. But the act’s already been passed into law. Either another MP pushes for an amendment, or we harry, harangue and harrass the government, the police and the Olympic bodies into making a guarantee that people will be free to protest should they want to. Whether or not they will protest at the time will be an interesting point – how many Greenwich homes will be rented out during summer 2012 by people who have had enough of the disruption?

So, did BBC London get any assurances from LOCOG, the government or the police that people would be free to display the odd dissenting window poster, or mount a peaceful demonstration, three years from now? It doesn’t sound like any were sought…

“The government told us tonight that the act was there to prevent over-commercialisation of the Olympics.”

And that was all. If any further questions weren’t answered, we weren’t told.

Journalism like this doesn’t help anyone. It gave NOGOE a free slot on the news, but it doesn’t move the debate forward – nobody’s been asked to confirm how this three year-old law will be implemented in three years time. It’s a serious issue, but presented as cheap spot for someone to have a moan. The impact of the Olympics in Greenwich Park – and London as a whole – demands more scrutiny than that. With misinformation from anti-Olympics protesters, the local council sucking up to organisers, and reporting like this; it’s no wonder why there’s still a lot of confusion about what to expect in 2012. We deserve better than this, we really do.

6 comments

  1. Ah, someone else who reads Opsi!

    I must say I was rather bemused by the BBC piece. Initially I expected the usual NOGOE line; park closed forever, irrevocable damage, psychological damage to local dogs etc but before I knew it they were talking about human rights. Like you, I think the Act is ambiguous; nothing new there. That’s the purpose of legislation, it allows lots of expensive lawyers and judges to spend hours of time interpreting and debating it. It’s not unheard of for an advertisement to be defined in broader terms to encompass the promotion of ideas, causes and of course the LDA so have to provide investors with the commercial safeguards they need when it comes to exploiting the Olympics.

    The most worrying part of the piece was when they said it might be deemed illegal to even display a poster in your own front room window. If it wasn’t for the sun, I’d swear it we were in Russia. My concern is the content of 4 (c) which you highlighted. The clause is framed around the premise that the regs apply to ads ( fair enough), but then section (c) says it also relates to material that isn’t for the purposes of advertising. Given that their definition of an ad stretches beyond just commercial messages, this seems to give the authorities to stop pretty much everything when read in conjunction with (b). Conversely, that whole section says the regs “may” apply and doesn’t say it definitely does which raises even more questions that it answers. I particularly like the phrase “things done with”- not exactly precise is it.

    Whilst I don’t agree with NOGOE I want them to be able to peddle their badges and t-shirts, to propose that the games are without criticism is wrong and they should be able to express that view so long as it’s peaceful at all times and doesn’t interrupt the games themselves. As you say the Beeb have let us down in the reporting of the story, but so have the Olympic authorities for not clarifying the application of the rules. All in all, after the BBC’s piece I remain confused

    Apologies for the incoherent rambling, I was inspired by those regulations!

  2. I think even China tolerated some protests at the Beijing Olympics (once you’d applied for your protest permit and gone to the designated protest area!).

  3. did the piece say anything about the laws being part of signing up to the games? I know some fairly draconian things had to be signed up to as part of the deal of getting the games. These might include these clauses.

  4. With the greatest of respect, I am not sure that you quite grasp what the Olympics is about. The IOC is a multinational corporation that exists to make money for its members. To satisfy national pride or political vanity countries take it in turn to stage the Olympics, paying ALL the costs. The IOC takes all the profits from advertising. As part of their deal with other multinational corporations the IOC guarantees that rival’s advertising will not be seen. The section of the 2006 Act quoted was passed to facilitate the IOC’s profits. In practice this means that if Coca Cola sponsor the Olympics every Pepsi sign, including logos on cafe nameboards etc, within miles will have to covered up.

    Whatever the IOC actually wants, we can count on the met police and other petty officials not only to take it further, but to take it to extremes, and there can be no doubt that small shops will be told to take down / cover all advertising including postcards in windows.

    Rob – Have you tried protesting near Parliament recently?

  5. Hello Bill, welcome to the blog. With similar respect, that is just your opinion. Yup, the IOC’s got a long and rather unfortunate history, and it’s true that we can expect some kind of clampdown on plugs for products which compete with that of sponsors. But just how far it will go is a matter of conjecture – and that’s something the BBC report did nothing to clear up.

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