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The battle with the Olympic censors

12 July 2012

11:00 AM

12 July 2012

11:00 AM

At 7am this morning, The Spectator’s managing director emailed me to say the new magazine is on sale at WH Smiths at Victoria station – a good sign, he said. But why shouldn’t it be? Because this week, we’re running a cover story by Nick Cohen lambasting the thuggish Olympic censors, the people who are stopping chip shops selling chips because the Olympics is sponsored by McDonald’s. And it’s still not quite clear, this morning, if that means we’ll be taken off the shelves.

A few weeks ago, I was emailed advice – not from our lawyers, but from someone else in the magazine world – that The Spectator should not refer to the Olympics for the duration of the Games otherwise we ‘could be taken off newsstands (and also liable to prosecution)’. It’s worth reprinting the rest of the advice:

Here’s the list of no-gos: Not only are many of the international logos, symbols and text (including, but not limited to, the words ‘Olympics’, ‘Paralympics’, the rings symbol) protected under the Olympic Symbol etc. (Protection) Act 1995 (OSPA), but the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act 2006 (referred to as ‘LOCOG 2006’) prohibits the use of the words ‘LOCOG’, ‘London 2012’, ‘Team GB’ or any images, logos or graphics relating to them, amongst many others… As well as these terms prohibited from use by anyone other than official partners, but also companies that produce unauthorised products bearing similar words (plurals, translations, deliberately misspelled etc.) are liable to be fined, with directors of the firms liable to prosecution…

LOCOG also prohibits the use of certain terms together, especially those which if feels could create the appearance of ‘associations’ with the Games. The rules of ‘Listed Expressions’ mean that any use of two of the words in list A or any word in list A with one or more of the words in list B, could result in legal action being taken against the offending company. List A:  Games, Two Thousand and Twelve, 2012, Twenty-Twelve List B: London, Medals, Sponsor, Gold, Silver, Bronze.

I’d be surprised if The Spectator was the only magazine that received such blood-curdling advice. It is, of course, appalling: could we really be prosecuted if we used the word ‘games’ and ‘bronze’ in a way that offended the authorities? We responded in the only way The Specator knows how: by publishing a cover involving the Olympic rings and mocking the censors, in a brilliant piece by Nick Cohen. We did this, of course, after seeking alternative advice – from a lawyer who is pretty sure that the media can plead exemption because it is granted freedoms which are (outrageously) not conferred on ordinary citizens. But even then, we may not be safe. ‘We know of instances where LOCOG have written to businesses to complain about asserted infringements which in our view are relatively weak,’ our lawyers warned.

The real risk, in my view is not so much from the letter of the law. It is from the chilling effect on free speech, created by the rules and their gung-ho implementation. Consider the following:

  • Sally Gunnell photoshoot promoting easyJet’s new London Southend service in July 2011. Locog executive stopped photoshoot of her raising a Union flag above her shoulders. Union flag was removed & she had to change from a white tracksuit to an orange T-shirt.
  • Butcher in Weymouth. Was told to remove his display of sausages in the shape of the Olympic rings.
  • Olympicnic. A small village in Surrey has been stopped from running an &”Olympicnic” on its village green.
  • ‘Flaming torch breakfast baguette’ offered at a café in Plymouth to celebrate the arrival of the Olympic torch was outlawed by Locog.
  • ‘Cafe Lympic’ & ‘Lympic Food Store & Off License’. Both had to drop the ‘O’ at the start of their names. But Alex Kelham, a brand protection lawyer at Locog, says: ‘The legislation actually catches anything similar to the word ‘Olympic’ as well. It’s not a fool-proof get-around.’
  • Florist in Stoke-on-Trent. Was ordered to take down a tissue paper Olympic rings display from the shop window.
  • Oxford Olympic Torch stalls. Traders will have to cover up their logos, and can only sell soft drinks from the Coca-Cola product range (inc. bottled water)
  • Webbers Estate Agents in North Devon. Threatened with legal action for displaying makeshift Olympic rings in its windows.

The word soon gets around: if you upset the Olympic censors, they will come for you. And what shopkeeper wants to get landed with a massive lawsuit? You’d sooner not take the risk. If a newsagent has been told (as we were, originally) that it’s illegal to be rude about the Olympics then to stock this week’s Spectator – which is defiantly rude about the Olympics – would be a risk you’d understandably not take.

We value freedom of speech far too little in this country. The British taxpayer has forked out a fortune to host the Olympics – but they should come here on our terms, respect our freedoms and respect the right of British people to do and say what they please. We badly need the equivalent of America’s 1st amendment protection: a clear right guaranteeing freedom of speech as paramount. Our failure to do this has created what Nick Cohen rightly calls a ‘corporatist dystopia’ during the Olympic games. As he says, Britain has not won the Olympics. The Olympics has won Britain. And we should have never allowed this to happen.

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