This morning it is time to look at the Olympic ideals, and the sorry progress of the torch around the world. It is a story of two cultures who seem unable to comprehend each other, of mistaken spinners for China, the Olympic movement and some torch host governments who think they can spin away the scenes on our televisions. It is a story of muddled authority and little sensible thought about what was likely to happen.
Reading the words of the Chinese Ambassador in the UK in this Sundayâ€™s press reinforced the message that an authoritarian single party state like China looks at human rights and freedom of expression in a very different way to a democratic country. There was seeming incomprehension that protesters could be so unfair to the noble torch bearers in the cause of Tibet, as if the torch supporters from China were in some way noble and the torch carriers exempt from any unfortunate associations. There was patient explanation that if only they understood just how well Tibet was doing under China, and how many people wanted Tibet to be part of China, the protest would wither away. There was just a hint of a warning, when the Ambassador told us that it was doing grave damage to the image of the West in China.
Listening to the UK government explaining that those on the streets supporting China and the Olympic movement were different and should be treated differently from those peacefully protesting against one or both created another sense of unreality. I asked the Foreign Secretary before the torch flew into London what instructions the government was issuing to the police, as I was worried the police were going to be placed in a very difficult position between two strong groups, pro and anti China. I received a bland and tortured reply, trying to run with the fox and ride with the hounds at the same time.
What I had hoped for was a more considered answer. It should have gone something like this:
â€œI am grateful to the Rt Hon gentleman, who has given me this opportunity to set out the governmentâ€™s view on this important matter. We have decided that the people of London who wish to should have an opportunity to see the torch being carried by leading athletes, unimpeded by violent or intrusive protest. We also believe that those who wish to protest about the matter of Tibet and human rights should be allowed to do so peacefully. We therefore have asked the Organising Committee to agree to a shortened route for the torch around Hyde Park, where the barriers used for royal processions will be used to keep back the crowd so they can view but cannot interfere with the torch and its carriers. The police will be asked to station themselves along the line of route in sufficient numbers to ensure no-one seeks to rush or leap the barrier, allowing people to view the torch. We have informed the Chinese authorities that we do not need the help of their security people to ensure the safe passage of the torch â€“ we have a long tradition of royal processions in London without incident. People may display banners and T shirt logos along the line of route, but not in a way which stops others seeing the torch.â€
It would also have helped if government Ministers had kept out of the limelight and left it to the Olympic movement and its chosen representatives in London.
I would give the same advice to any country that has not yet received the torch but is going to. If they wish to continue with it it would be best to chose a route which can be protected sensibly without intrusive security, and the authorities should allow peaceful protest.
The Olympic movement has some difficult decisions to make from here. It seems to want to continue with the progress of the torch despite the volume of criticism it has engendered. If that is so it must make better arrangements. The problems will get more formidable in Tibet, where the worldâ€™s media will want to congregate to follow â€“ or make- a story. It will not be the kind of story the Olympic movement wants. Stopping the media or controlling the media in Tibet will reinforce the human rights protest elsewhere. Allowing the media will give greater prominence to the Tibet issue. Is that what China herself really wants?