Britain basks in its jingoistic achievement
The British like to think of themselves as self-deprecating, and normally they’re right, even if much of that is a self-compliment. But now, with Britain winning more Olympic medals than it had since 1908, self-deprecation has been jettisoned. It ended the games on Sunday with the third-most gold medals after the U.S. and China, and the fourth-most medals overall, with Russia just ahead.
This was good for a midsize, broke country. As the third spot seemed increasingly like the final result through the last week, the Brits became increasingly delirious. BBC commentators, normally schooled in judicious and balanced commentary, were shouting their larynxes out as the medals rolled in: When Sir Chris Hoy, the cycling tyro, won his sixth gold medal in the keirin (speed-controlled) race last Wednesday, the “commentary” melted into a stream of hysterical liquid sound.
Yet if the British did very well in the games, the BBC did badly in what it is supposed to be best at: being fair, balanced, neutral and objective. Frankly, it went ape.
On BBC Radio Four’s Media Show, Roger Mosey, who headed the Olympic coverage, was asked why impartiality was nowhere to be found, and wasn’t that a problem? He protested that the news coverage was impartial, but added that “when you see Chris Hoy getting his sixth medal, it would be nuts for the national broadcaster not to be rooting for him.” He’s wrong about the coverage: When a Brit won gold, it was top of the news for hours, relegating the destruction of Aleppo (and everything else, including the slower destruction of the euro) to second place. And he was wrong about it being nuts, too.
There were some protests, but unfortunately often grouchy ones. Patrice de Beer, a former London correspondent for Le Monde, wrote last week of the “farcical jingoism” of the modern Olympics, asking rhetorically – “is it not the task of analysts to keep their heads cool when faced with a tidal wave of ‘sporting nationalism’? And to warn of the rude awakening … that will come when the games are over?” British commentator Nick Cohen made much the same point in Time: “Outsiders see a confident country. For this brief interlude we may believe it ourselves. But not for long.” Their point was that this was ugly chauvinism. But in predicting that it would all end in tears when reality returned, they came across as killjoys, Puritans eagerly anticipating the payment of the wages of sin, seeing the enthusiasm as a distraction from the necessary long brood on our deeper problems.
But a protest also came from another, astonishing source: the BBC’s director general, Mark Thompson. He had clearly worried that the BBC had ceased to be a broadcaster and become a fan, and he told his senior executives so. The head of news, Helen Boaden, sent a memo to all journalists, noting that Thompson was “unhappy” and that he had “issued a directive that this needs to change … so you need to get cracking.” It’s often hard to read the BBC runes, but so careful was Boaden to emphasize it was his, not her, unhappiness, that it seemed likely she wasn’t entirely on board with her boss (who leaves soon and sees his once-great power draining from him).
It’s understandable that the British Broadcasting Corporation, most of whose income comes from the law-abiding majority who pay their £145.50 ($227.30) annual license fee, would find it hard to keep a balance as good news, a rarity in the UK this past year or more, kept emerging from London. It must seem especially so to the commentators who were in the stadiums and the halls where the events took place, infected by the delight of their compatriots. To do other than join in would seem to invite a lynching.
Yet the Corporation doesn’t usually go “nuts.” In a series of military engagements – when Britain and Argentina went to war over the Falklands in 1982, when Tripoli was bombed by U.S. planes based in the UK in 1986, when British planes bombed Belgrade in 1999 and when Britain joined the U.S. to invade Iraq in 2003 – both Conservative and Labour governments saw BBC balance as unpatriotic. British servicemen and women were risking their lives, and the politicians cried that the national broadcaster was nuts to pretend neutrality. Not so, the management would doughtily respond: We must insist on our right to give both sides’ version of the conflict due weight.
The contrasting approach of the world’s greatest public broadcaster to its nation at war and to its nation at sport should give it, and all journalists, pause. Sporting triumphs merit objectivity much less than deadly warfare. We like to tell ourselves that we who work in free societies help keep these societies free by being independent of the state, by not wrapping ourselves in the national flag. But whether at the public broadcasters or in the larger private media sphere, we are prisoners not of the state, but of our customers. It’s a position more or less accepted by newspapers, but it’s true, too, of public broadcasters, even though they hate to believe it of themselves. For public broadcasters, when push comes to shove, journalism is at the service of national enthusiasm.
One kind of journalism escapes this: global journalism. It’s the kind done by the corporation that publishes this, Thomson Reuters; by its competitor, Bloomberg; by the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, the International Herald Tribune – and even, in its global garments, the BBC World Service and BBC World TV. These media speak to readers and viewers who wanted widely differing outcomes for the Olympics, and so the news is objective and the comment balanced. This isn’t a Thomson Reuters contributor enjoying a self-serving moment: The global players are prisoners too – of an audience that has no single national allegiance. Just as the BBC can’t escape the burden of being patriotic, so the global players can’t indulge in it.
I’m not tempted to be as much of a grump as de Beer and Cohen: If we have to have a hangover when we remember, once more, that we’re broke, so what? For a few crazy weeks we’ve had relief from the sore head we had. But I’m with Mark Thompson: As the 18th-century French statesman Talleyrand put it, “surtout pas trop de zèle” (above all, don’t go over the top). A measured tone is better. Indeed, if one were being cynical, one could argue that it’s actually (sneakily) more patriotic: It shows the Brits think it’s normal to be great.
And we the media have relearned an old, uncomfortable, lesson: When the piper really wants a tune, we play it.