London Olympics Censorship
The Spectator’s Nick Cohen dubs this year’s London Games the “Censorship Olympics.” Had he called them the “London Censorship Olympics,” the “2012 Censorship Olympics,” or titled the piece “Censorship Takes London Gold” he might have faced civil or criminal penalties.
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.
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.
While I think they’re silly, I can live with the restrictions on the athletes and, to a lesser extent, those who buy tickets to attend the Games. Participation in the Olympics or watching it on site is, essentially, a private contract between the organizers and athletes and patrons. Certainly, they have a right to decide which soft drinks to sell or which credit cards to accept. So long as the restrictions are well spelled out, no real harm is done to human freedom.
On the other hand, it’s baffling that the people who gave us Magna Carta think the rights of Englishmen don’t extend to satirical commentary or the ability to utter the year, city, and the colors of precious medals in combination.