The British media is renowned around the world. So why when we spent ’10 billion of tax payers money hosting the Olympics were some of our best and biggest names in the national and regional press, relegated to reporting from the sofa?
I once googled the name William Cash to learn that there is a knife murderer on death row in Alabama or some such state with the same name. Well now there's another criminal in the Cash clan. And this one is British, aged 45 and was seen shortly before the crime carrying a Leon Max umbrella from the Serpentine Party and a plastic union jack flag.
The crime occurred shortly after 8am on the Tuesday morning of the Dressage team finals at the Olympics, and I felt like a drug addict in desperate need of a fix. The proposed location of the black-market transaction for two tickets to the Dressage team finals involving £300 in used notes — was unlikely as a crime scene: the Peter de Wit's cafe — specialising in home-made English sausages and pork pies – opposite the Greenwich market.
I somehow missed the original cash rendezvous drop point so the money ended up passing hands in front of an official Olympic snack kiosk opposite the security entrance to Greenwich Park's magnificent Equestrian stadium. I had never met my ticket source before – but she was from Devon and was mad about horses which suggested the tickets were kosher. She had been lucky enough to get five £150 tickets in the ballot and had two spare. 'I am carrying a union jack flag and an umbrella' I texted to her by way of identification. 'But so is almost everybody else' she texted back. We finally identified ourselves over the phone by way of her wearing a red top and green trousers.
The entrance area to Greenwich Equestrian arena was crawling with armed police but none gave a damn about any cash dealings close to the gate. They were more worried about confiscating my plastic bottle of water. According to one Greenwich kiosk owner I spoke to, who had witnessed dozens of such transactions, they estimated over 70% of official Olympics tickets were not being used by the people who bought them. And a lot of those people turned out to be British media who were reduced to reporting from the sofa. Like me.
We have been hearing about the 'rush' for tickets to the Paralympics – apparently there are still several hundred thousand still to be sold. This is great for ticket sales – and for those in the public sector who cant face the idea of going back to work at all this summer – but I wonder whether this time around the British media (with the except of the BBC who had 763 staff accredited for the Olympics) might actually be able to report from the Olympic Park – rather than sitting in front of their TV sets?
There has been a lot of talk about legacy in the last few days. What has not been mentioned, and a darker side of the Olympics legacy, is the scandalous — and avoidable — way that the provincial, local and specialist (ie non mainstream UK papers) British media were exiled and excluded from the Games.
Up until the Dressage Finals, the only media access I had to the London 2012 games was watching on the TV at home. I was not alone. Far from it. While the BBC spent the entire Olympics gloating about their all-areas Olympics access, getting so close to many athletes that they blubbed during interviews and becoming so tactile with athletes that the public loudly complained, the hard working British regional and local press — along with thousands of other British specialist media — were quietly excluded from covering the Games despite doing so much to support the Olympics at the bid stage and promote the Games in the last six months.
Spear's editor-in-chief William Cash had to use underhand tactics to get his hand on Olympics tickets, and many regional, specialist and national media outlets were denied press accreditation
The British media is renowned around the world for its humour, political diversity, investigative skills, and sheer range. We are Gold medallists at writing splash Olympic headlines. No country in the world other than Germany comes close. America may have 35 or so gold medals but it doesn't have a national newspaper industry – unless you count USA Today which is such a dumbed down tabloid that it suddenly makes OK! seem like Prospect.
So why when we spent £10 billion of tax payers money hosting 'The Greatest Show on Earth' were some of our best and biggest media names in the national and regional press across the UK, along with global magazines like Spear's, relegated to reporting from the sofa?
While the regional and British business media (The Economist did get an accreditation but most business/current affairs magazines did not) were given access only to the public TV screens in Hyde Park and outside the Circus Maximus in Stratford, the regional foreign media — which is all you really have in the US, China and Australia (New York Times, LA Times,Sydney Morning Herald et al) — got to be ferried around in luxurious VIP Media buses along the VIP traffic lanes, and —most importantly -—were allocated hundreds of seats at each event that they couldn't be even bothered to turn up to, leaving them empty. Worse they don't even have to bother with booking any tickets. It's access all areas — and some seemed to have their kids with them too from what I could see from the press area at Greenwich.
This will surely be a regrettable part of the Olympics legacy. According to the International Olympics Committee there were around 27,000 media
(including technicians) covering the Games, of which only 5,500 were journalists and photographers. Of this around 270 were from the UK —including for some bizarre reason a 'media chaplain' — with full 'E” passes (giving unlimited access). That left very little room – if any – for local or regional papers, including local London papers.
Take the Wenlock Herald — my local rag in Shropshire — which is read by the market town of Much Wenlock where the modern Olympics movement was started back in the late 19th century by Wenlock doctor Dr William Penny Brookes in 1850 after he started the Shropshire Games, based on the ancient Athenian games. In 1866, Brookes founded the National Olympian Games and he is recognised as a founding father of the Modern Olympic Games, along with Baron Pierre de Coubertin whom he used to meet at the Raven Hotel in Much Wenlock, which still very much exists today. The bar serves a good range of wines — all from Tanners.
The hotel contains a museum of their exchange of letters from those early years. The Wenlock Olympian Games are still held every July. Back on 30 May, the Olympic torch of the London 2012 passed through the historic town to commemorate the debt that the modern Olympic games owes to Brookes, after whom the local school is named.
That is also why 'Wenlock' is the name given to one of the two official Olympic mascots, which can be purchased as a fluffy toy or as an official Olympics Cadbury's chocolate bar. But despite this unrivalled Olympic heritage — unrivalled in the world — no correspondent from the Wenlock Herald (the local paper) was accredited by the BOA at London 2012. The Wenlock Herald Olympics Correspondent was just another member of the UK media sofa brigade.
When I brought this exclusion of the British regional media up with the deputy editor of one of Britain's largest regional paper groups, he told me
that the way the UK regional press have been treated by the BOA had been indifferent to the point of condescending. The executive wishes to remain anonymous but he told me: 'I know that when we were originally applying for passes, it was made very clear to us that regional press would get next to nothing – basically, only a few scraps, if available, after the nationals and internationals had had their pick.We felt it very unfair, since LOCOG and partners had been happy to exploit us for favourable PR coverage while the stadium was being built, and taxpapers’ money being spent!'
When I was watching the English dressage team win Gold at Greenwich, my £150 (face value) seat happened to be right next to where Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, was sitting with his wife and various American VIP dignataries. Princess Anne, her son Philip and her husband were a dozen or rows behind, much higher up in the Gods.
The area in between was a grey plastic desert of empty seats as seen by the photograph I took (the 45 year old Minister is wearing shades and is seated to the left surrounded by empty seats). A few rows behind Hunt, I did see a number of happy looking BBC journalists with their special BBC neck ribbons and badges in this VIP/Media area at Greenwich.
Empty seats at the dressage finals
In view of the empty seats scandal, with some 6,000 empty seats per day and the army and 'school children' being shipped in to fill the seats, I wrote to Miriam Wilkens, head of the UK's Media Operations, to ask whether professional British media might be allocated any sort of media access to the Games.
This empty seat scandal rightly incensed Lord Moynihan — our Olympics Special Diarist — who has vocally expressed his 'deep concerns' about the issues relating to unused VIP/media seats, saying after Day 3 of the Games: 'The problem of empty seats at London 2012 still has to be sorted. I do not feel any more relaxed today than I did two days ago. It is unfair on Team GB not to have maximum support with as many people sitting in the seats as possible. It is also absolutely unreasonable to the public, who are so supportive of Team GB, not to have the opportunity to come to a Games and enjoy an experience which most of them will never have again in the United Kingdom'.
The reply I had from Miriam Wilkens was disingenuous. She stated that we had missed the boat as ALL media accreditation was closed as long back as 2010. Yes, over two years ago !
As she explained in what read like a template letter: 'The Media Accreditation Committee decided at the very first meeting that no late applications would be accepted and this is something that we have maintained throughout the entire accreditation process.The accreditation process was open from Wednesday 4th August to 15 October 2010'.
However, enquiries I made — and conversations I had with fellow colleagues in the media — confirmed quite clearly that this was not accurate; it wasn't even close to be true. An officer I spoke to at London Accreditation Media Ticketing confirmed that accreditations from UK media were being accepted 'within the last year'.
And another senior member of its communications team confirmed to me that 'There were a number of accreditations given out post 2010'. Another said, comically: 'You may be media but what right do you have more than a school child to watch the Games? They are just as deserving'.
Right. Perhaps the most glaring proof of this misinformation from the BOA came when it was revealed only last month that The Voice, Britain's oldest and widely read black newspaper had originally been refused accreditation to the Olympics. The official rejection letter reply received by the editor of The Voice from the BOA even blatantly contradicted the Stalinesque reply I received from the BOA relating to the 'no late applications' rule.
‘The extraordinary interest and demand from UK media saw the British Olympic Association (BOA) receive more than 3,000 requests for the approximately 400 accreditations available. After careful consideration by the Media Accreditation Committee, we regret to inform you that your application for accreditation for the London 2012 Olympic Games has been unsuccessful. Should we be in the fortunate position to receive additional accreditations from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as the Games near or if any granted accreditations are returned, we will reallocate them to applicants on our waiting list. You will automatically be put on this list.’
After an on-line protest by over 2,500 readers who were outraged that The Voice Newspaper — founded in 1982 by Jamaican-born accountant, Val McCalla — were not going to be able to report on the antics of Britain's brilliant black athletes (who must out number our white winners), a decision was made in July by the BOA reversing the original rejection and granting media accreditation to London 2012. So that's one example of BOA changing their mind. But most UK media don't even make it onto the waiting list.
As the editor of The Voice Newspaper put it even after being given his 'E' media pass: 'Questions must be asked of the Media Accreditation Committee as to what criteria they used to reach the conclusion that The Voice was not worthy of accreditation…what training and knowledge or race relations and equality the members of this committee have…what is the equality break down of the media organisations granted accreditation and rejected and how many UK based black and minority ethnic media organisations have received accreditation'.
The media accreditation mess and the empty seats fiasco are two areas that could have been easily resolved with savvy media skills and leadership. None of which the senior executive members of the BOA 'Communications' media team seem to possess; they can't even reply to professional media emails without resorting to using a form template. Why the Director of the UK Communications team is an American is also unclear.
On top of this, the nature of the media business is that the thinking is more about next month than next year. News organisations tend not to know the make-up of their editorial teams two years in advance so one would expect some flexibility – especially to UK based media who have been spending time and resources promoting the Olympics. Whether the provincial or regional press have been offered media passes to the Paralympics as a consolation prize, I do not know. Judging by the bureaucracy that went with the Olympics – and the cut off date for application is 2010 – I suspect the poor regional press will be once again ostracised from the stadium.
While Britain had to make do with a few hundred media passes, the Chinese had around 500 for the Bejing Games. Ironic isn't ? As The Telegraph's Olympics editor put it last year, whist taking up this very subject: 'For a country with limited media freedom the numbers of accreditations are in line with Britain, which has the most robust competitive media market in the world'.
The shameful mess up of British media accreditation by the TeamGB media and the BOA is only made worse by the fact that the BOA have allowed the IOA to trample all over them when it comes to handing out a few 'scraps' to theBritish media, treating us like a provincial cousin. With Britain third in the Olympic rankings —only behind America and China — perhaps Olympics Minister Hugh Robertson or Jeremy Hunt should lobby the IOC that media passes for Rio should be allocated in relation to Golds won. At least the editor of the Wenlock Herald might have a chance of making the cut then for 2116.
Read more by William Cash