Olympic Security and the Limits of Debate

The Editors, 27 July 2012

Categories: London Olympics | BBC News | Security | Military |

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'Our instructions from government are absolutely clear', explained Home Office security and counter-terrorism head Charles Farr to the BBC's Gordon Corera. '[O]f course the priority must be to save and protect life, but our priority should also be to keep the Games running. The Games go on'.

The need to secure the Olympic stadium and to ensure the safety of games-goers is, naturally, a priority for an event of this magnitude. However, in the lengths we are willing to go to for this security, it seems an assumption that anything goes. Should we perhaps pause for thought before we surrender certain civil liberties in the name of security? Discussing the surface-to-air missiles placed on residential buildings in East London, a BBC reporter embodied what seems to be an official principal of the Olympic project when it comes to public concern over the impact of such measures: 'people are just going to have to make allowances'.

Avoiding the implications of the terrorist threat

Why is it felt that the London Olympics requires such a level of military protection? And what form should the defensive measures take? Neither question is up for debate in the mainstream news, despite very relevant, recent, historical evidence to inform the former.

Gordon Corera, BBC News Security correspondent, writes: 'The shadow of terrorism has hung over the Games for a reason. The day after London won its Olympic bid on 6 July 2005, suicide bombers struck the city.' Referencing the connection between the terrorist attack then and the need to protect now, the underlying reasons were still not explored. Shortly after the bombings, the BBC News website published the text from the videotape made by one of the bombers. 'Your democratically elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people all over the world', he told the camera. This was undoubtedly a reference primarily to the UK's involvement in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. A clear evidential link is shown here between British foreign policy and the last terrorist attacks on London, yet no BBC journalists have so much as drawn a connection between the continued British occupation of Afghanistan and the installation, now, of such a high level of security for the Olympics; not once is reference made to the British occupation of Afghanistan in any BBC coverage of Olympic security.

A large part of the reason for this disconnect may itself lie in the nature of the war reporting on Afghanistan, which most journalists seem to conform to, the underlying premise of which is that the occupation is sustained due to the benign intentions of the British government to assist the people of Afghanistan in nation-building, establishing democracy, and the ‘transition’ of control from NATO to Afghan forces. The mainstream media’s portrayal of the motivations behind terrorist attacks on western countries has not advanced far past the vacuous sentiments expressed by George Bush in 2001: ‘They hate our freedom, our liberty, our way of life’, and in Tony Blair’s address as Britain launched its attack on Iraq in 2003: ‘Both [Iraq and terrorist groups] hate our way of life, our freedom, our democracy’; journalists make little effort to explore the possible reasons behind the attitude of extremist groups towards the west.

To venture in to this issue would fly in the face of the grounding assumption that the west only acts in good faith with its military adventures – an unacceptable premise to challenge in the news.

G4S – Framing the issue around incompetence

G4S has received much scrutiny in the media following its failure to provide sufficient security for the Olympic Games and the resulting inquiry by the home affairs select committee. Coverage has discussed the ‘humiliating shambles’ (as put by G4S chief executive, Nick Buckles, in an attempt to salvage his career) of G4S’s inability to fulfil its contract.

What has not prompted such outrage in parliament, and in the media, is the company’s record of involvement in human rights abuses. In June, Laurie Penny wrote in the Independent of the ‘potentially lethal techniques they said were being used to restrain asylum-seekers’ and the G4S ‘security at jails for Palestinian prisoners, including child detainees’, but this has received little mention elsewhere in the media.

A ‘G4S profile’ by the BBC discusses the ‘conduct of G4S’s security staff’, mentioning the death of Angolan asylum seeker, Jimmy Mubenga, while being deported from the UK by G4S in 2010. It is eye-opening that the BBC only fleetingly discusses this (G4S subsequently lost its contract and the case has otherwise not been drawn upon in BBC coverage of G4S), but, along with the rest of the UK media, has devoted such time to the business failures of the company. Such a record by the company awarded the Olympic contract and now bidding for prison contracts, receives hardly a whisper in the media. To contrast this with the outrage G4S faces when unable to deliver on its contract, it is clear where priorities lie.

Jim Naughtie, on the Today programme, said of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron: ‘They all know what it [the Olympics] means’. It is used as ‘an advertisement for this country and to show the world what we can do’. The media’s approach diverges little from that of consecutive governments, playing a significant role in creating just such an ‘advertisement’.

The issue of the militarisation and securitisation of East London is depoliticised for consumption in the news. Offering context to the need for such a high level of security, or discussing the practices of the private firm we trust with its provision, would no doubt create alternative narratives about the impact and legacy of the London Olympics.

Categories in which this article appears: London Olympics | BBC News | Security | Military |

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