Nick Cohen

Censorship Olympics

The organisers of the Games have been handed unprecedented control over everyday speech

Censorship Olympics
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The guards would not let me walk round the Olympic park. ‘We’re in lockdown because of a security alert,’ one explained. The rain fell. The overbearing policing intimidated. ‘London is going to host the Paralympics and the paramilitary Olympics,’ I muttered with unpatriotic grumpiness, as I retreated to the bright lights and piped music of Stratford’s new Westfield centre, only to find another lockdown in progress.

David Cameron said the Olympics should be a ‘showcase of national enterprise and innovation’. As far as the enterprising shopkeepers and restaurant managers at Westfield were concerned, the games might as well not be happening. There were no adverts inviting people to enjoy Olympic lunches at the cafés or signs in the shop windows wishing Team GB the best. Westfield had little to distinguish it from any other shopping centre from New York to Shanghai. They were coy because Britain is at the start of an experiment in the criminalisation of everyday speech; a locking down of the English language with punishments for those who speak too freely.

In the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act of 2006, the government granted the organisers remarkable concessions. Most glaringly, its Act is bespoke legislation that breaks the principle of equality before the law. Britain has not offered all businesses and organisations more powers to punish rivals who seek to trade on their reputation. It has given privileges to the ­Olympics alone. The government has told the courts they may wish to take particular account of anyone using two or more words from what it calls ‘List A’ — ‘Games’; ‘Two Thousand and Twelve’; ‘2012’; ‘twenty twelve’. The judges must also come down hard on a business or charity that takes a word from List A and conjoins it with one or more words from ‘List B’ — ‘Gold’; ‘Silver’; ‘Bronze’; ‘London’; ‘medals’; ‘sponsors’; ‘summer’. Common nouns are now private property.

The London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games does not stop there. To cover all eventualities, it warns the unwary that they can create an ‘unwarranted association’ without using forbidden words. They threaten anyone who infringes the exclusive deals of Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Adidas, Dow, Samsung, Visa and the games’ other multi-million-dollar sponsors in however oblique a manner. And not just with the normal damages in the civil courts. The state has granted the police powers under the criminal law to enter ‘land or premises’ and to ‘remove, destroy, conceal or erase any infringing article’. 

The Olympics want to ban the often witty attempts by businesses to annoy the official sponsors with ‘ambush marketing’. My favourite was at the 1992 Winter Olympics when American Express ran an ad saying, ‘You don’t need a visa to visit the Games’ — which Visa had, of course, sponsored. Visa could do nothing about American Express’s cheek then. Now the authorities will meet similar attempts to spoil the sponsors’ party with punishments in the criminal courts.

To concentrate on the interests of sponsors, however, is to miss the fanaticism of the authoritarian mentality behind the games. Priests sacrificed oxen and rams to Zeus and Pelops at the ancient Olympics. Their successors sacrifice the freedom to speak and publish to the gods of corporate capitalism and international sport. They regard encroachments on their holy space, however trifling, as a modern version of sacrilege. 

Trading standards officers in Stoke on Trent told a florist to take down floral Olympic rings. Offending sausage rings vanished from a butcher’s window in Dorset. It is not only rings. The Olympic organising committee warned estate agents in the West Country that they must remove Olympic torches made from old ‘for sale’ signs or face ‘formal legal action’. When the British Sugarcraft Guild asked the authorities if it might run a 2012 cake-decorating competition, it thought it was making a modest request. The Guild was not even going to sell the cakes afterwards. No matter. Only official sponsors could decorate cakes with Olympic symbols, the Olympic organisers ruled. Such petty-minded strictures are not mere protection of a brand, but an obsession with control that is hard to match. Not even the Cuban Communist party claims the right to regulate images of Che Guevara.

The constraints will grow tighter. You will be able to pay with Visa cards at Olympic events but not MasterCards. You will be able to drink Coke but not Pepsi. Whether stewards will turn you away if you arrive in branded clothing is an unanswered question. Certainly, officials will punish an athlete who, deliberately or not, exposes the logo of an unauthorised company. Modern athletes can afford a fine. But what of the Olympic bureaucrats’ warning to spectators that they must not ‘broadcast or publish video and/or sound recordings, including on social networking websites and the internet’? In the age of instant uploads from iPhones to Facebook this is an absurd restriction, which will make the organisers the object of derision and contempt if they try to punish offenders.

The Chartered Institute of Marketing is angry that its members have paid taxes towards the £9 billion cost of the games but are not allowed to use the Olympics to seek custom as they could use Wimbledon or the Jubilee. It goes on to raise a more profound point. The Olympic organisers dismiss everyone seeking to exploit the games, from high street butchers to rival multinationals, as ‘parasites’ — an insult I would not throw around if I had allowed the fat and sugar merchants of McDonald’s and Coca-Cola to purchase an association with sport. In reply, the institute says there must be limits to what money can buy. Sponsors should be free to buy good publicity from an event, and protect their investment, but not occupy every possible avenue of advantage. Despite its protests, an occupation of public space is what the sponsors of the 2012 games have bought — with the encouragement of the British government.

Therein lies the true scandal of the 2012 Olympics. Ministers have not told the organisers that Britain is a free county, and they cannot turn officers of the law into McDonald’s, Coke and Visa’s private police force. For a few weeks in August, Britain will be a corporatist dystopia, in which agents of a sporting behemoth will ban the normal and, until now, legal marketing of products, and seek to stop file sharing on social network sites. Britain’s lawyers have shown no desire to tell the Olympic committee that they can’t do that here. Article 10 of the Human Rights Act protects free speech. But in case after case the judiciary has ignored it. The games will provide a further depressing illustration of the weakness of the protections against censorious power. Only this time the whole world will be watching.

In 2005, Britain said it had ‘won’ the Olympics. When the games begin, it will become clear that the Olympics ‘won’ Britain.


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Written byNick Cohen

Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer and author of What's Left and You Can't Read This Book.

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