The Banal Nationalism of Olympic coverage

The Olympics are invariably a troubling time for those wary of the excesses of patriotism and nationalism. This time around the BBC’s coverage of the games has been singled out as reflecting a narrow concern for promoting the glory of the British athletes, and failing to draw sufficient attention to the successes of other countries. The BBC’s director general, Mark Thompson is alleged to have expressed his concern over the tone of the coverage, criticised as jingoistic and sentimental by American journalists who insist “U.S. journalists would never openly root for the home team”. Robert Shrimsley nicely sums up the way that the coverage was skewed towards ‘team GB’: foreigners were only deemed worthy of attention if they are:

“a) as famous as Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps; b) a great sporting discovery who will become synonymous with the London games; c) a double amputee and, most importantly, d) not in the way of a British medal hope”.

There seem to be two issues here. First, the BBC is being criticised for the tone of its coverage i.e. for cheering British competitors too blatantly. Second, the BBC is being criticised for its editorial decisions over which events to focus on in their coverage. The first issue doesn’t seem too hard to remedy – it just calls for commentators and presenters to have a little more self-control. The second is more fundamental – can anyone really imagine the BBC giving similar airtime to Kazakhstan’s weightlifting success, or South Korea’s shooting medals?

That this is so offers a nice example of the phenomenon Michael Billig calls banal nationalism. The idea of banal nationalism refers to the way that apparently innocuous, everyday occurrences reinforce the fact that we live in a world divided into nations, and emphasise the significance of our national identity. Billig focuses on the subtle and insidious: “not a flag which is being consciously waved with fervent passion”, but “the flag hanging unnoticed on a public building.” Of course, the Olympics involve plenty of conscious fervent flag waving, and it was fervent conscious flag waving that the BBC’s tone has been criticised for. But I think the banal nationalism of the BBC’s coverage, reflected in its editorial decisions, is even more interesting, not least because it seems so obvious and inevitable that it rarely invites comment

Banal nationalism derives its force from the numerous times a day that we are reminded of our national identity, our commonality with our compatriots, or our difference from foreigners. For example, when the British news refers to the British government as ‘the government’, it reinforces the idea that it is the government that British people should care about, to the exclusion of all others, whether or not the matter in question affects them personally. Similarly, the division of newspapers into ‘domestic’ and ‘international’ news reinforces the mental division between compatriots and foreigners.

We can see the banal nationalism of Olympic coverage by comparing it to the coverage of other sporting events. I don’t think that most cosmopolitans have any problem with the idea of rooting for teams in spectator sports – I think most would acknowledge that this adds to the enjoyment of the event. However, supporting a country in the Olympics is different to supporting a football team. For a start, the degree of choice that accompanies the latter decision is greatly reduced – many people choose to support teams other than their home team, for a number of reasons, including liking players in the team, or enjoying their style of play. Yet in the Olympics, it is deemed aberrant to pick and choose countries or competitors to support in this fashion. Even if you already have favourites, there is a pressure to discard them – I imagine many British supporters of Roger Federer felt compelled to abandon him in the interests of ‘team GB’.

The notion that it is aberrant not to get behind your home country is fostered by the media coverage of the games. It is presumed that you will be most interested in the fortunes of the competitors of your country, whichever sport they compete in, whether you like that sport or not. It is presumed that you only care about the backstories and narratives of your compatriots. Even if you wanted to support another country, the lack of attention given to non-British competitors gave viewers essentially two options: with us or against us. This mirrors and amplifies the banal nationalism of news coverage more generally – the assumption that you care more how the British judokas are doing reflects the assumption that you are more concerned about the British earthquake victim than those trapped beside them.

Interestingly, just as global telecommunications are generally beginning to offer an alternative to the narratives of banal nationalism, so modern technology provided the best hope of escape from the banal nationalism of the 2012 Olympics coverage. Between its interactive online and TV broadcasts, the BBC offered the chance to watch near enough every event of the games, without biased commentary or analysis, if you wanted. To take an example, one sport I really got into during the past fortnight was handball. Before 2012, I had never watched an Olympic handball match, mainly because Britain isn’t very good at handball. But since I no longer had to depend on the BBC’s guess of what I wanted to watch (Britain winning things), I was free to discover a new sport and cheer for teams that aren’t GB. Yet as I’m sure Michael Billig would insist, resistance to banal nationalism is near futile – even if we overcome a few particular instantiations, it is so powerful and pervasive that it is basically inescapable.

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