How the Olympics is making us stupider(er)

By Oliver Milne on August 3rd, 2012

The Olympics is doing many things that I personally dislike: allowing, faceless unaccountable corporations to ride roughshod over our civil liberties, turning Tom Daley into a figure worthy of admiration and encouraging large amounts of unnecessary happiness and jubilation.

However, all of these pale in comparison to the effect it’s having on our news coverage and the damage that does to our democracy. Both our newspapers and broadcast media are in the thralls of a collective psychosis: the peculiar notion that the Olympics is in some way news.

It is easier to understand for our beleaguered newspaper industry: combine Leveson with the paradigm shift of free online content eating their collective breakfasts and you create an industry desperate to please and to be accepted.

It’s really not that surprising then that for most of the last week that the Guardian, the Independent, the Observer and the Times have all forsaken the the journalistic trope of actual content on the front page.

Instead, the done thing now in British newspaper production is massive photographs accompanied by monosyllabic praise like “Night Of Wonder”.  Sunday’s Observer led with 21 pages of Olympic coverage before the word news appeared at the top of its pages.

Even the conventionally loquacious Telegraph yesterday apparently forgot that newspapers require headlines and decided instead to opt for the preschool option of pretty pictures and bright colours. Pass the sick bucket!

But, where our newspapers are bad, our television stations are worse. Take the BBC. Not content with having BBC1, BBC3 and News 24 blanked with Olympic coverage, the corporation still insisted on the Games colonising the first 10 to 15 minutes of the 1pm, 6pm and 10pm news broadcasts with a cheery roundup of what’s been happening that day at the Olympic Park.

This is despite the BBC providing a nightly Olympics round-up in the form of two ingeniously titled programs: Olympics Tonight and Olympic Sportsday.

Even Newsnight has been talking about the sodding Olympics, as if Paxman & co. are the victim of a Soviet-style diktat from Mark Thompson stating that “all news is equal, but Olympics news brings ratings”. Ye gods!

There is a serious point to my whinging. As I write this, the Syrian uprising approaches a tipping point, RBS announced losses of £1.5 billion, Spain stepped back from the brink of financial apocalypse and the American Presidential election is beginning to gather pace.

A functioning democracy requires a media that attempts to explain the worlds of international relations, finance, domestic politics, crime and, yes, even sport to its citizens. It requires journalists in print and on screen to ask “Why?” in the face of horrifically complex or morally unspeakable events.

We’re a country at war, in recession, experiencing a nationwide loss of faith in our public institutions.

The world is complex and is growing more treacherous to interpret and navigate every day. It’s nice that we have all this sport happening, and of course it deserves a place in our news media, but, as Wiggins cycled, the rest of the world – unaware of the importance of his near messianic achievement – continued in its tradition of having things of importance happen elsewhere.

Now, particularly, is not the time – not even for two weeks – for the watchdog to take up medal counting.