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Olympics a test for England's grey unpleasant land


Ben Jellis

A stifling urge to control and prevent misfortune shows the Old Dart is not confident.

'The modern English have, en masse, forgotten the liberating fact that although the worst-case scenario might one day ...

'The modern English have, en masse, forgotten the liberating fact that although the worst-case scenario might one day happen, most of the time it doesn't.' Photo: Getty Images

IT WAS the real-time footage on a screen in the red bus that ultimately did it for me. I had been living in England, happily enough, for six months. But in that instant I'd had enough.

As camera angles flashed by, I realised there must have been at least eight security cameras on the bus. Looking for what? I decided then, this bus contained the ultimate proof that England might have gone just a little safety mad.

I was wrong. It was reported this week that an East London apartment building may have anti-aircraft missiles (plural!) on its roof for this year's Olympic Games. That's a real live missile launcher providing security for athletics. And the country wonders why it has run out of money.

Historically, there is nothing unusual about a British building being equipped with a bit of rooftop security. Most of the old properties in the town where I was living still bristle with vestiges of turrets, arrow-slits and gangways. An Olympic missile launcher does, though, really take things to a new level.

The reason for this development is that the modern English have, en masse, forgotten the liberating fact that although the worst-case scenario might one day happen, most of the time it doesn't. Always planning for doomsday has made everyday thoroughly miserable.

To say this is not, though, to seek a return to a laissez-faire, OHS-free, golden age. Things were also pretty grim for the 19th-century English when the only career path for a northern child was to head up a chimney or down a mine (albeit that a career path for any young adult now living in the north would be an improvement).

It's a balance. But a life without risk is really no life at all. That's what makes the upcoming Olympics such an interesting test for the country. Sport is inherently unpredictable and sometimes a little bit chaotic. Screaming fans, shock results.

Great Olympic Games have this vibe. Sydney did. The last Olympics, Beijing 2008, did not. Though how the autocrats there saw to it that most of the events, in a country of 1 billion people, felt largely unattended is a great wonder in itself.

For my part, I am pessimistic about the Old Dart. I see a future with five grey Olympic rings.

The stifling urge to control and prevent any possible misfortune seems to be growing. I suspect the reason, at least in part, is the global financial crisis. When the finance industry, an industry of risk, was discredited across the country it seemed to let the last air out of the balloon.

This is evident even in the ongoing controversy surrounding Rupert Murdoch. This week a parliamentary panel of MPs declared to the world their opinion on the ex-Australian's ''fitness'' to run a British corporation. They are, of course, free to do so. But with even the smallest insight of historical perspective the image of politicians, for want of a better phrase, press-ganging a newspaper proprietor is one that is profoundly chilling. One can't shake the feeling that very old scores are being settled at a very high price. No one wants a press that bullies politicians, but when politicians feel liberated to bully and control the press that is infinitely worse.

A confident country would feel this strongly. The US, even in its current torpor, would never stand for it. But English support for Murdoch is muted. A dangerous precedent is being set.

This is not ''first they came for Rupert'' exaggeration. Nor is it a defence of his product. When his paper the News of the World was closed due to controversy, I felt compelled to buy a copy. Feeling some sentimentality at the demise of a famous masthead (albeit one I had never actually read), I even bought it on Fleet Street.

What I found inside was a ghastly retrospective celebrating invasive and aggressive journalism. The paper, it seems, spent years bullying celebrities and pulling stunts such as sending out a reporter dressed as a fake sheikh. And hacking voicemails brings it down? No wonder no executive saw the controversy coming.

How could they? What, really, has changed is that English tolerance of freedom and risk has steadily evaporated. It's the Londoner on the bus, being filmed from five angles on her morning commute, who has come to feel that the free press should also be brought under control. What a grey life she now leads. Eight cameras on the bus, all missing the point.

Ben Jellis is a lawyer and lived in England from 2010 to 2011. He is writing a book, Australians in Oxford, about the experience.

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  • The U.K is turning into a Police state with the masses freedoms being taken away, just check out what David Icke has to say about this. Aus is following the trend, dont believe me? my question is how many of the masses voted for the current PM. Bit of a joke really isnt it. Governments should work for the people notthe other way round.

    Date and time
    May 04, 2012, 8:19AM
    • David Icke !?! So are the lizard people behind all this?
      Is Rupert's resemblance to an aging goanna just a coincidence?
      Should I dig out my turquoise jumpsuit & tin foil hat?

      Big Vern
      Date and time
      May 04, 2012, 11:06AM
    • How could I have missed this! Of course it is Gillard's fault!

      Date and time
      May 04, 2012, 3:19PM
  • So I've read the article twice now and I'm still at a loss to work out what the point of it is. Is it about the Olympics? The UK's fascination with CCTV cameras? That the parliamentary inquiry into the appalling NOTW phone tapping scandal is somehow a case of an authoritarian government bullying a poor billionaire media mogul (who once happened to be Australian)? Perhaps it's just a simple bit of pommy bashing?

    Given his inability to string together a coherent theme in a thousand word article, I don't hold high hopes his book based on living in the UK for a whole 12 months.

    I once lived there for 5 years. I wonder if I might get an article in the Age?

    Great stuff.

    St kilda
    Date and time
    May 04, 2012, 8:43AM
    • Oh dear. I just submitted a comment below about my qualifications to write such an article, but it appears you are far more qualified than I.

      Perhaps if you take a look at my comment below, you might consider writing a joint article with me? Although I will freely admit that it will be YOU doing ME the favour.

      Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
      Fleet Street
      Date and time
      May 04, 2012, 2:53PM
  • I had a chuckle to myself reading the comments on NOTW. I too bought the last edition - the only copy I ever bought. I even went as far as stashing it in a box and bringing it home with me!

    Having recently returned from 4 years in London I've unintentionally found myself constantly drawing comparisons between here and there. Reading this article I find myself asking if the 2012 Olympics were to be held somewhere in Australia would our knee jerk, over the top reaction to security be any different. The only difference I can see is we wouldn't be told about the missile launcher on the roof of an apartment building.

    I look forward to your book coming out by the way.

    Date and time
    May 04, 2012, 8:52AM
    • "No one wants a press that bullies politicians, but when politicians feel liberated to bully and control the press that is infinitely worse."

      It is? Why? Is the press more important than government?

      Date and time
      May 04, 2012, 8:55AM
      • Are you serious? You don't see an issue with a state controlled press? Wow, that's scary.

        Let me try and break it down for you. The press may 'bully' politicans but they don't have the power to make them change laws or their policies. However, if politicians control the press they can shut down unfavourable reporting, as the Labor/Green alliance are trying to do here (refer to Stephen Conroy and Christine Milne's comments about bias needing to be looked at).

        I agree with the author - that is infinitely worse when you consider the power balance. Just look at counties where the media is controlled by the state, like North Korea, China etc

        Date and time
        May 04, 2012, 1:59PM
      • It is infinitely worse because the state has potentially unlimited power. Look at the history of the press in totalitarian regimes. They all started with restrictions on the press, followed by confiscation and ultimately total control of the media. Who stops the state then? Disarmed civilians? When push comes to shove, the state always wins.

        Date and time
        May 04, 2012, 3:55PM
    • Whilst I agree that old score are being settled, I cannot agree that the juggernaut you assume is under way will stick together and prove dangerous to other media channels. And your suggestion that the US will not stand for it is proved wrong by the news that 'Jay Rockefeller, the chairman of the Senate committee on commerce, science and transport' inquiring if he (Justice Leveson) has 'uncovered any evidence relating to questionable practices in the US.' Non of us will enjoy a grey Olympics but, it seems, all of us will enjoy the greying of Murdoch.

      Date and time
      May 04, 2012, 9:01AM

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