No pain, no gain
Despite the heat from the media, British Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell still believes in press freedom. Peter Simpson reports
Spare a thought today for British Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell and pray that her frayed nerves hold out for the next 1,713 days until the opening of the 2012 London Games.
As the minister - who was last week on a fact-finding mission to Beijing - sat down to dinner with foreign correspondents at the British Embassy last Monday night to hear their concerns about press freedom in China, her Olympic watch back home was going up in smoke ... literally.
Fire broke out at derelict warehouse on the proposed Olympic green in east London, sending a black plume of smoke across London's iconic skyline, inspiring headlines writers at the British tabloids, perpetually poised to pounce on the beleaguered minister.
Jowell planned to do a live interview with a British camera crew from the steps of the ambassador's residence after coffee, to outline how her meeting went with Beijing Olympic counterpart Liu Qi, the head of Bocog.
But her advisers said it was not a good idea, what with the 2012 preparations seemingly ablaze for reasons then unknown.
After a decade of trying to spin the British media this way and that - and losing badly - Jowell's ruling Labour Party can smell cunning media juxtaposition a mile off.
The flames back in London were fuelled further when more highly flammable material was poured on to Jowell's red-hot Olympic file a few days later.
The British media went into mocking, scolding, wagging-finger and tongue-lashing mode, after it was revealed the London Olympics would cost a whopping GBP9.3 billion (HK$148 billion) - an over-spend that exposed what one politician described as 'the most catastrophic piece of financial mismanagement in the history of the world'. The admission means the final cost is more than double the original bid figure.
Jowell also has a vast pride of feral cats and a collective of irate vegetable gardeners blocking development on the London Olympic site to contend with.
Both groups are protected by the rule of law and have the backing of Britain's gnashing media pack.
The questions over the cats' future dominated a recent popular BBC current affairs programme called Question Time; worried members of the studio audience demanded answers from the Government.
'We have a lady who is allowed to sleep on the Olympic site because she is part of the Cat Rescue Charity - and already 174 lactating or pregnant cats have been taken from the site and delivered to good homes,' Jowell said in Beijing.
The minister is used to controversy. She unwittingly became the centre of a media scrum called 'Jowellgate' in early 2006 when her then husband, David Mills, was embroiled in alleged money laundering and tax fraud in Italy and linked to then Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.
She was investigated by both the government and by the media because of a potential clash of interest between her personal life and ministerial duties. She was cleared of any wrongdoing, and last year got a divorce. As culture minister, she went on to court various policy controversies before being made Olympics minister.
To date, there is little the UK public doesn't know about the Olympics chief.
The Chinese, however, - and the world - are allowed to know only that her Beijing 2008 peer, Liu Qi, has a an MA in iron smelting; is a professor of engineering; was once mayor of Beijing; is a member of the political bureau of the 17th Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee; and is secretary of the Beijing Municipal CPC Committee.
His Olympic high points are widely publicised by the state propaganda machine, yet you'll never know about his mistakes.
He is just another smiling technocrat in a suit promising to deliver the best games ever. And the Chinese are inclined to believe him, if not publicly give their support.
Yet despite the soaring bills and compensation to be paid to dispossessed vegetables growers, tabloid headlines, allegations and probes, the British public also backs the under-fire Jowell - or at least supports her Olympic vision.
Despite a year and more of controversy, the UK public support for the Olympics is still high, latest polls suggest.
'That's something [positive] at least, as you get whacked everyday about something or other in our media for failing to do this or that,' said Jowell.
As she dined, Jowell listened to the concerns of the Foreign Correspondents Club of China.
Tangible media freedom remains elusive on the mainland, despite all the promises, she was told, despite a relaxation of media rules - overseas journalists and their Chinese assistants are still routinely harassed, imprisoned and generally hindered as they try to enjoy the pledges by the Chinese in the name of the Olympic Charter.
It looks increasingly likely the 2008 Olympics will fail to deliver the changes many - including the IOC - had hoped for.
But Jowell disagrees. She thinks many legacies will be left behind in China - including greater media freedom, and subsequent government accountability and transparency.
During her meeting with Liu, she said she warned him: 'Media freedom is like a genie. Once you've let it out of the bottle, it's then very hard to put it back in again.'
She then added: 'I said it was my hope, and the hope of many people around the world, that this will be a new era of press freedom that was precipitated by the Olympics.
'He replied ... by referring to the greater transparency seen at the recent 17th Communist Party Congress.
'[Liu] said nothing that led me to think he was going to look at reversing the changes that have taken place . . . and is nothing more than sincere in ensuring Beijing honours its commitments.
'You can be as staged-managed as you like. But if the substance is not measurably there, then you fail in your obligations. China gave commitments . . . but the commitments that you make when you become a host city are not negotiable.'
However, Jowell called for modest expectations from Beijing 2008, as the Olympics has only so much 'leverage'.
'It will not solve every human rights contravention and abuse that China practises. But what the Olympics can do . . . is produce progress,' she said.
Does Jowell secretly day dream of a London governed along Beijing government lines - one where the actions of its rulers are rarely called into questions, and obstacles like feral cats and residents on Olympic sites are bulldozed out the way without fear of a media-informed public backlash?
As smoke began billowing across east London 600 miles away and headlines writers started rubbing their hands in glee, the beleaguered British Olympics minister offered no hesitation in her retort.
'The government in the UK gnash their teeth every day at the way the press use their freedom. But it's better than the alternative, I can tell you,' she said.
Olympic site flame
The number of firefighters who battled the east London blaze: 75