Senior Guardian sports writer Barney Ronay indicated the basic tone of early corporate coverage of the Russia 2018 World Cup:
‘Moscow is like a giant scale version of Lewisham’
Journalist Peter Oborne responded:
‘I know Moscow. It is one of the great cities of the world. Barney Ronay should stick to sports reporting. He diminishes himself by trying to join in Guardian anti-Russian sneering.’
In fact, Ronay had already joined the Guardian’s sneering with his review of the World Cup’s opening ceremony and first match. He commented:
‘There was the required grimly magisterial speech from your host for the night, Mr Vladimir Putin.’
The intended irony being, of course, that the grim ‘Mr Vladimir Putin’ – think Vlad the Impaler – was hosting a joyous sporting occasion. And we do not mean to suggest that there is not much that is grim about Putin’s Russia (as Oborne also made clear in an excellent article he tweeted to people who responded to his criticism of Ronay); that is not our point.
For Ronay, the grimness was inescapable, as he noted in describing the opening match between Russia and Saudi Arabia:
‘This match had been dubbed El Gasico by some, a reference to the fact these two nations host between them a quarter of the world’s crude oil reserves. Perhaps something a bit darker – El Kalashniko? – might have been more apt given the distressingly tangled relations between these two energy caliphates, who are currently the best of frenemies, convivial sponsors of opposing sides in the Syrian war.’
Although Ronay is a sports writer, realpolitik was a running theme throughout his review of the opening ceremony:
‘Here the power-play was on show for all to see, the stadium TV cameras cutting away mid-game to show shots of Putin and Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman leaning in to swap gobbets of power gossip in the VIP cockpit. Lodged between them sat the slightly jarring figure of Gianni Infantino, the mouse who roared, an administrator who really must blink now and then and wonder what exactly he’s doing here. Football does get itself into the strangest of places.’
‘A few weeks ago Fifa produced a film showing Putin and Infantino doing keep-ups together inside the Kremlin. Even here the dark hand of the Putin alternative reality machine was felt, with talk that the president’s performance had been doctored by technicians to make his skills sicker, more convincing, less the usual middle-aged mess of toe‑pokes and shinners.’
Driven by an army of ‘Russian bots’, the ‘Putin alternative reality machine’ is supposed to be distorting everything from Brexit to Trump’s presidency, to Corbyn’s rise to prominence, but is mostly an excuse for the West’s alternative reality machine to attack internet freedom that has left the establishment shaken, not stirred.
Finally, Ronay added:
‘To squeals and roars Putin appeared at last to deliver a speech about the joys of football, not to mention peace, love and understanding, all of which are great. It was perhaps a little rambling and terse, less opening day Santa Claus, more notoriously frightening local vicar called away from his books to open the village fete.’
Chief Guardian sports writer Martha Kelner, formerly of the Daily Mail and niece of the former Independent editor Simon Kelner who was at one time deputy sports editor at the Independent, also focused on the ominous undertones:
‘Just 15 minutes before kick-off the Russian president was driven in a convoy of cars with blacked out windows into an underground space beneath the 81,000-seat stadium. Large swaths of the crowd burst into a spontaneous chant of “Vladimir, Vladimir”. When Russia won the right to host the World Cup eight years ago the Russian president possibly expected it to be an opportunity to ingratiate himself with the international community. The aims have changed drastically since then, with Russia’s involvement in wars in Ukraine and Syria, allegations of meddling in foreign elections and one of the biggest doping scandals in sporting history.’
Perhaps in 2012, some free-thinking Guardian journalist reviewed the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, noting that David Cameron ‘possibly expected’ the Games ‘to be an opportunity to ingratiate himself with the international community’, having destroyed Libya in 2011, and having voted for the war that destroyed Iraq in 2003. In reality, of course, there was no need for Cameron to ingratiate himself – it was precisely the ‘international community’ that had committed these crimes.
Like all Bond villains, Putin was joined by other leaders of a lesser God:
‘Putin was joined in the VIP box by a host of lesser known world leaders including Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the president of Uzbekistan, Sooronbay Jeenbekov, the president of Kyrgyzstan, and Juan Carlos Varela, the president of Panama.’
But Kelner glimpsed light in the darkness:
‘There was evidence, too, of progress being made through football in the less enlightened corners of the world. Yasser, an IT engineer from Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, attended the game with his wife and two primary school age daughters. They were surprise visitors, especially as women were not even allowed into football stadiums in Saudi Arabia until January this year.’
It would never occur to a Daily Mail/Guardian journalist that Britain and its leading allies might be considered ‘less enlightened corners of the world’, given their staggering record of selecting, installing, arming and otherwise supporting dictators in ‘less enlightened corners’, including Saudi Arabia as it devastates famine-stricken Yemen.
A Guardian TV guide commented:
‘Expect a fearsomely drilled opening ceremony live from Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, followed by a human rights activist’s dream of an opening fixture as Russia take on Saudi Arabia.’ (Catterall, Ali; Harrison, Phil; Howlett, Paul; Mueller, Andrew; Seale, Jack; et al, ‘Thursday’s best TV: The Trouble with Women; Fifa World Cup,’ The Guardian, 14 June 2018)
We can be sure that the England team has never featured in ‘a human rights activist’s dream’.
The Guardian sneers were very much extended to singer Robbie Williams who performed at the opening ceremony. A piece by Mattha Busby reported:
‘Robbie Williams has been accused of selling his soul to the “dictator” Vladimir Putin after it emerged he will be performing in Russia for the football World Cup.’
Busby cited Labour MP Stephen Doughty, who voted for war on Iraq and Syria:
‘It is surprising and disappointing to hear that such a great British artist as Robbie Williams, who has been an ally of human rights campaigns and the LGBT+ community, has apparently agreed to be paid by Russia and Fifa to sing at the World Cup opener.
‘At a time when Russian jets are bombing civilians in Syria, the Russian state is poisoning people on the streets of Britain, as well as persecuting LGBT+ people in Chechnya and elsewhere – let alone attempting to undermine our democracies – I can only assume Robbie will be speaking out on these issues alongside his performance?’
The Guardian clearly felt the point needed underlining. It also cited John Woodcock MP, who voted for war on Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and Iraq:
‘We all want to support the England team but Robbie Williams is handing Vladimir Putin a PR coup by performing at the thuggish pariah’s opening ceremony just months after Russia carried out a chemical weapons attack on English soil.’
Nobody criticised Paul McCartney, Mike Oldfield or indeed The Queen for participating in the London 2012 opening ceremony. But then nobody could think of any reasons for considering David Cameron a ‘thuggish pariah’.
Former Guardian music editor, Michael Hann, observed dismissively:
‘Williams’s stardom has been largely confined to Europe and isn’t of the wattage it once was. Still, nothing hung around long enough to get dull…’
As for the event:
‘It was short, it was mostly painless. And it was completely pointless.’
Kelner’s piece included a tweeted video clip from England footballer Kyle Walker showing Williams giving the middle finger to his critics, with Walker commenting sarcastically: ‘So nice of Robbie to say hello.’
In The Times, under the title, ‘Fans give Moscow shiny, happy feel to help Putin create image of harmony,’ chief football correspondent Oliver Kay scratched his head in bewilderment, asking:
‘What does Russia want from this tournament?’
Kay rejected out of hand the notion that it was ‘about trying to convince the rest of the world that Russia is open to embracing what the West would regard as a modern, progressive approach to life’. (Oliver Kay, The Times, 13 June 2018)
Fellow Times journalists and other Westerners taking a ‘modern, progressive approach to life’ will have nodded sagely from their more ‘enlightened corners of the world’.
Broadcast media were happy to join in this New Cold War fun. The Telegraph noted of ITV’s senior football commentator Clive Tyldesley:
‘One man who is definitely not going mushy on us is Clive Tyldesley. The great man was in fine form on commentary, getting a reducer in early doors with an anecdote about the Russian manager, Stanislav Cherchesov, having a nationally-celebrated moustache and observing that “Stalin had a proper ‘tache”. Somewhere, [football commentator] Andy Townsend murmured, half to himself, “a cult of personality dictator who slaughtered millions of his own citizens? Not for me, Clive.”‘ (‘Clive Tyldesley takes on Vladimir Putin as ITV kicks off World Cup with brilliant opening broadcast,’ Telegraph, 14 June 2018)
‘The camera dutifully sought out President Putin after the opening, mildly controversial goal; the top man was shaking hands with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. Clive: “They are doing an oil deal, nothing to do with the match.”‘
Discussions of ugly realpolitik do have a place in sports analysis. But did UK and US realpolitik in plundering Iraq and Libya’s oil, in propping up dictators in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Turkey, Kuwait, Uzbekistan, in supporting Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, in obstructing action on catastrophic climate change, in subordinating Third World people to power and profit over hundreds of years, make it into sports reviews of the London Olympics, or any other UK or US sporting event?
The Sun reported of broadcaster Gabby Roslin:
‘Despite her excitement, Gabby, 45, does have some reservations about being in Russia.
‘”I’d be lying if I said I was completely free and easy and it will be just like a weekend Marbella, because it won’t,” she admits. “But you have to be open to cultural differences and not try to change it and make it fit for you. Russia are not going to do that.”‘ (‘World in motion: Your TV schedule is about to be taken over by football as 2018 World Cup kicks off in Russia,’ The Sun, 9 June 2018)
And then there was ‘Putin’s Russia with David Dimbleby’, a BBC One special. A TV guide in the Telegraph commented:
‘”In a democracy if you fail to deliver on economic promises, if you surround yourself with cronies and use the law to suppress opposition, you would rightly be thrown out on your ear. But this is Russia, they do things differently here…” So begins David Dimbleby’s thoughtful film in which – as the eyes of the world turn towards Moscow for the 2018 World Cup football tournament – he takes the opportunity to cast an eye over Vladimir Putin’s 18 years as leader and assess the state of Russia today, especially in regard to the West.’ (‘What’s on TV tonight: Putin’s Russia, The Fight for Women’s Bodies and Beetlejuice,’ Telegraph, 13 June 2018)
They also do things differently at the BBC. On January 18, 1991 – one day after the US-UK’s Operation Desert Storm had begun devastating Iraq with 88,500 tons of bombs, the equivalent of seven Hiroshimas, just 7 per cent of them ‘smart bombs’ – Dimbleby asked the US ambassador to Britain:
‘Isn’t it in fact true that America is… by dint of the very accuracy of the weapons we’ve seen, the only potential world policeman? You may have to operate under the United Nations, but it’s beginning to look as though you’re going to have to be in the Middle East, just as in the previous part of this century, we and the French were in the Middle East.’ (Quoted, John Eldridge, ‘Getting The Message: News, Truth and Power,’ Routledge, 2003, p.14)
Dimbeleby retained his job as an impartial, objective public broadcaster. In fact, nobody noticed anything controversial at all.
London 2012 – A ‘Festival Of Light’
By contrast, the London 2012 Olympic Games’ opening ceremony was widely hailed as ‘a masterpiece’. For The Daily Telegraph it was ‘brilliant, breathtaking, bonkers and utterly British’. The BBC’s chief sports writer Tom Fordyce commented: ‘no-one expected… it would be quite so gloriously daft, so cynicism-squashingly charming and, well, so much pinch-yourself fun’.
‘Cynicism’, which certainly had been ‘squashed’, was off the agenda. In an article titled, ‘Festival of Light’, The Times preached from a patriotic pulpit:
‘From London these next few weeks will come joy in a time of trouble, will come spectacular feats and great human dramas, will come triumph and will come tears. The great dream of the Olympic founders, that the Games would eliminate war, was naive. But they can at least unite us in common endeavour. Mankind has many moments of great darkness, but this will be a festival of light.
‘Yesterday’s opening ceremony was a triumph. Adventurous, self-confident, playful, entertaining and all with a sense of history. It was suffused, in other words, with the spirit of the Games to come… Festival of Light: Great feats of athletic ability; great unscripted stories of triumph and disaster; a great sense of national spirit. Britain will rise to a shining occasion… For our country, as well as the athletes from around the world, this is a time to shine.’
This was a time to exalt in Britain’s greatness, ‘a time to shine’. It was not a time to sneer at ‘our’ great wars of aggression.
In an article titled, ‘Let’s build on the triumph and hope of Danny Boyle’s night’, the Observer’s editors also waxed lyrical on the opening ceremony:
‘Sport has a special hold on the imagination. This is sport of the most special kind. We didn’t drop the torch. We didn’t foul up or shrink from the daring option. We put creativity first. Now, why on earth should all that go hang when it’s all over?’
The Observer sought out any remaining readers not yet reduced to tears of patriotic joy:
‘It sought to sum up a country – a very multicultural land manifestly – which had played a full part in world literature, world construction, world invention (even if very few of those feats are taught in our core curriculum these days). It was anxious to show us, in short, that we’d mattered – and hint that we could perhaps matter again.’ (Leading article, ‘London 2012: Let’s build on the triumph and hope of Danny Boyle’s night,’ The Observer, 29 July 2012)
Jonathan Freedland wrote in the Guardian:
‘Here too the opening ceremony set the tone, suggesting that we should love the country we have become – informal, mixed, quirky – rather than the one we used to be.’
Freedland soared on a reverie of poetic possibility. The Olympics had offered hope of a place ‘where patriotism is heartfelt, but of the soft and civic rather than naked and aggressive variety; a place that welcomes visitors from abroad and cheers louder for the Turkish woman who came last in a 3,000m steeplechase heat than it did for the winner.
‘This is the Britain we let ourselves see these past two weeks. It will slip from view as time passes, but we are not condemned to forget it. We don’t have to be like the long-ago poet who once wrote: “Did you exist? Or did I dream a dream?”‘
The sublime, lovely and inspirational were everywhere in reviews of the London 2012 opening ceremony and Games.
Three weeks before the ceremony, Amnesty International published a report, ‘Libya: Rule of law or rule of militias?’, based on the findings of an Amnesty visit to Libya in May and June 2012.
The militias, Amnesty reported, were now ‘threatening the very future of Libya and casting a shadow over landmark national elections… They are killing people, making arbitrary arrests, torturing detainees and forcibly displacing and terrorizing entire communities… They are also recklessly using machineguns, mortars and other weaponry during tribal and territorial battles, killing and maiming bystanders. They act above the law, committing their crimes without fear of punishment.’
‘The entire population of the city of Tawargha, estimated at 30,000, was driven out by Misratah militias and remains scattered across Libya, including in poorly resourced camps in Tripoli and Benghazi.’
None of this was up for discussion by Britain’s sports writers and broadcasters, nor even by its political commentators. It would have been deemed as outrageous for journalists to mention UK realpolitik then as it would for them to not make at least some passing reference to brutal Russian realpolitik now.