How the media can control our enjoyment and leave us feeling helpless
The hundreds of Irish people clustered in front of giant Screen 4 at BT Live in Hyde Park were anticipating a golden moment. Thanks to the generosity of telecommunications provider BT and its co-sponsors, they had together just witnessed boxer Katie Taylor win Ireland’s first, and perhaps only gold medal of the London 2012 Olympic Games. It was late afternoon on Thursday 9 August, Day 13 of the games. Now, clutching their Irish flags and basking in the warm early evening sunshine, the crowd waited eagerly for the medal ceremony. This was going to be their “I was there” moment of the Olympics. They would stand proudly, sing along to the Republic of Ireland’s national anthem, and celebrate with their fellow countrymen.
I imagine, as they waited patiently for that medal ceremony, that most gathered in front of Screen 4 were feeling pretty good about BT: for organising this wonderful outdoor show and providing the opportunity, not only for tourists from Ireland but also Irish people from across London and other parts of the country, to come here for free and celebrate together.
The medal ceremony for the women’s lightweight boxing was announced. The podium was clearly visible in the centre of the ring. Twenty minutes or so earlier the crowd had watched the ceremony for the British gold medal winner of the women’s flyweight competition, and had applauded and cheered her. But this was going to be different. This was going to be their own girl, their own Katie Taylor from Ireland. The excitement was palpable.
Then, just as the medallists were about to emerge and take their positions in the ring, the screen changed to the London 2012 logo, followed by a succession of advertisements for BT and its sponsors. The crowd couldn’t believe it. Surely this must be a mistake. Heads turned towards the BT Live media control centre over on the far side of the arena. Boos rang out. “Give us back our live feed. Let us see Katie get her gold medal. We want to sing our national anthem.” It was like we’d all been invited to a fantastic New Year’s Eve party, and then someone had switched off the music at five minutes to midnight and told everyone to go home.*
Personally I felt like I’d been kicked in the stomach. A feeling of helplessness overwhelmed us all. Some faceless apparatchik in the Media Control Centre had decided we shouldn’t have our “I was there” moment. More boos rang out across the park. One man threw an empty plastic glass at the screen in sheer frustration. It was inevitable that comparisons would be made. It was fine to show the Team GB girl being awarded her gold medal, but not the girl from Ireland. Now the Irish people felt hostile. They, like me, probably left the BT Live arena thinking ill of BT and its co-sponsors.
Trying to analyse what happened dispassionately, I would say that at first a fear, and then a dawning realisation came upon us all that there was nothing we could do about the situation. There was no one to complain to, nobody to reason with. As the seconds ticked by and advert after advert appeared on the screen, we felt powerless to change what was happening. All we could do was boo. We couldn’t grab the remote control from whoever was denying us our moment of supreme London 2012 delight. There was no ‘rewind’ button. This moment was passing and there was nothing more we could do. The Media Control Centre was indeed in control, deciding what we should and shouldn’t see, and what we should and shouldn’t celebrate. In the electronic, highly connected world that we now inhabit, this was an apt and strangely troubling metaphor for our everyday lives. Although the internet and social networking tools are enabling us, to some extent, to bypass traditional methods of media control, we are still dependent for much of our ‘raw data’ and day-to-day experiences on whatever the media choose to deliver to us.
* The reason for BT Live’s action was almost certainly because Team GB’s Victoria Pendleton was being brought onto the main stage. But the timing was unfortunate, to say the least. It resulted in Victoria being greeted by raucous booing from one quarter of the arena. Not the BT Live organisers’ finest hour.