BBC will show Olympic protests

From Richard Spencer in the Telegraph:

The BBC, the only British broadcaster with access to stadiums this summer, says it cannot be expected to hide demonstrations if they happen at events where they have cameras.

Its decision, which it stresses will be applied “responsibly”, will increase Beijing’s nervousness as the Games approach.

The Beijing Organising Committee of the Olympic Games, BOCOG, has already had angry exchanges with the world’s leading broadcasters who complain of delays over permits to bring their equipment into the country and to deploy them around the city.

At stake is not only control over what sort of events can be broadcast, but also increasingly tight restrictions on shooting locations, with Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and other sites with important symbolic value on the list of those off-limits to broadcasters.

Despite promises of unprecedented access for the world’s media during the games, it is becoming clear to many journalists in Beijing that the government and BOCOG are increasingly wary of allowing in so many prying eyes, roving cameras, and possible hidden agendas. This has sparked tension between representatives of the foreign media and their Chinese handlers.

Dave Gordon, head of major sports events for the BBC, told The Daily Telegraph that Beijing had become “more difficult” for broadcasters than the Moscow Games in 1980.

He said international representatives had tried to get answers for two years on whether the Olympic broadcasting agency that provides the only feed of the actual events would show footage of protests if they occurred.

“They fudge the question,” he said. “They won’t commit to saying yes, they will cover it or no, they will not cover it. They put a lot of stress on the importance of covering the sport. I think we have to draw our own conclusions.”

Mr Gordon said the BBC paid a lot of attention to “responsible” coverage of protests and whether 24-hour rolling news meant coverage of individual protests might become disproportionate.

But he added it was unthinkable that if its own cameras in the stadium picked up a protest it would not be shown. “We have to cover the Olympics warts and all,” he said.

“Warts and all” is a standard worth discussing. For as much as BOCOG and the Chinese government love to whine about how ‘foreigners’ are politicizing the Olympics, only the most naive or disingenuous would deny that the Beijing games have always come with striking political overtones. For both the government and people, these games are about more than medals and celebrity hurdlers. On my television set nightly and in conversations around Beijing I inevitably hear the refrain of ‘celebrating new China’ and ‘demonstrating to the world how far China has come (back).’ There’s nothing wrong with that, but if one is inviting guests over to admire the new draperies, can we fault the visitors for whispering amongst themselves if they also happen to see your child has a black eye?

I remember the extensive coverage of the 1996 pipe bombing during the Atlanta games. It was news and it had to be covered. Atlanta received an enormous amount of scrutiny and criticism, not only for security but also for being–until 2008–the most commercialized games in Olympic history. Such was the antipathy that at the closing ceremonies then IOC president Juan Antonio Saramanch withheld his usual polite ‘best games ever’ compliment. Sure there were some bruised feelings in the Peach Tree State, but people got over it. If something similar happened in Beijing, what would be the response?

In terms of television feeds and media access, at issue is this: What are the rights and responsibilities of broadcasters covering the games? Should they only show sports or do they also have an obligation to take a broader perspective in the event of protests and demonstrations, or even a single act of defiance by an athlete with an agenda? Any thoughts?