Saturday, May 19, 2012

UK press show that racism works both ways

British press reports about Ukraine are well wide of the mark, and in some cases just plain offensive --- Before even getting onto Euro 2012, the British press is letting itself down badly over Ukraine. For many years that country was ignored by most of the British papers (with the notable exception of the FT) and tended to spew out occasional clichéd pieces on the failure of the Orange Revolution. The Daily Mail has bought into the Tymoshenko story as one of their 'human interest' stories, to the extent even of reporting lovingly on the white tiger from her presidential election campaign. Back in the winter of early 2010 I distinctly remember most people being unimpressed by the ads as we slid around on ice and snow that had not been cleared (with some suggesting that funds for snow clearing might have been diverted into her election campaign). By all means highlight accusations of mistreatment in prison, but please don't start doting. --- I must say at this point that the last thing I want to do here is just indulge in straightforward 'whataboutism' of the kind peddled by Russia Today or the absurdly-named 'Pravda'. I have no truck with people who say that just because British MPs stole cat food, or even duck islands on their expenses that we're 'just as bad' as ministers in CIS countries stealing companies and mansions, or that the inadequacies of western democracies are no different to rigged elections and constitutional vandalism in the CIS. I think we could be a little more humble at times (Freedom House should not rate western democracies as a perfect '1'-the people living in those countries certainly don't feel that way) but we have a right to criticise abuses where they take place. --- It was the aforesaid (nye)Pravda that ran a story on the Luis Suárez racism row claiming that English football was 'riddled with racism', in a clear effort to deflect from the story that Roberto Carlos had again had a banana hoyed at him in a Russian league match. The fact that Suárez was banned for ten matches, and that John Terry is being hauled in front of the courts, while nothing has been done (to my knowledge) about the Carlos situation in Russia tells its own story. We know that the British media too is 'not perfect', hence the Leveson Inquiry, although some of the UK papers' most recent abuses are unlikely to arouse much concern in the isles, directed as they are towards the distant poorer half of the continent. --- Interesting though the politics is, for the tabloids it's coverage of Euro 2012 that's going to shift newspapers. Enter The Sun (and on the topical subject of boycotts, The Sun has form here), who started spewing out various negative articles on the host nations, as soon as England had managed to qualify of course. They have picked up on three apparently salient issues, those of racism, hooliganism and sex tourism. I won't say that these problems don't exist (as Ukrainian government representatives have tried to) but the reporting of them is not even sensationalist, just plain absurd. Theatrical-looking photos accompany stories about nationalist training camps for hooligans. Nobody I know here in Ukraine knows anything about it and it looks like far-fetched nonsense. I think what is more likely is that there could be isolated flare-ups due to a combination of alcohol, the language barrier, and cultural misunderstanding. Some of the shoving on the metro or aggressively bad customer service (some people here have a way of saying 'zakrita'-we're closed-which might as well be f*** off). That's the kind of thing which Ukrainians routinely live with but can flick the switch of the average Brit pretty easily. Ukrainian police can also not be relied upon. These are genuine things to be concerned about. Semi-fictional militarised hooligan firms are not. The visit of 6000 Scotland fans to Kiev in 2006 gives an idea of what to expect. There was a nasty incident in the city centre which affected some supporters. For the vast majority however, the experience of coming to Kiev was a positive one, and the locals took to their kilted visitors.
--- On another issue The Sun also offers up an equally staged-looking photo of sex workers lined up in front of Shakhtar's Donbas Arena. Now in one sense there is a very serious issue here. Ukraine does indeed have high levels of HIV and AIDS, particularly in the east and south of the country, but I don't see that the issue is any different from elsewhere. People who use sex workers anywhere are playing with fire, not only in Ukraine. Should we portray British men with revolting habits as the victims in this?
--- Then there are the Walcotts, brother and father of Theo, who have decided not to come, and a broad consensus amongst various people in the UK that this is probably sensible. Again, it doesn't make much sense to people on the ground here in Kiev. Do they think that they'll be racially-abused in the hotels and restaurants? Are Arsenal paying their players so little these days that the Walcotts can't afford taxis and will need to take the metro late at night? It's true that Ukraine doesn't have a history of multi-culturalism, but there are plenty of countries that don't. Moscow is famous for its racism problems and neo-Nazism which includes celebrating the birthday of Hitler (the very man who ransacked their country and regarded them as 'untermenschen'), but I would still bet on a racist attack being just as likely in London, probably more likely. Kiev is a pretty safe city. --- On the issue of racism there is one more thing that needs to be said, that the very treatment of Ukraine and its stereotypes in the British press illustrates a widespread racism against Eastern Europeans in Britain which is only just beginning to be tackled. Would the racist rant lady on a Croydon tram have been arrested if her rant had only been against Polish people? The Polish are given a horrendous time in the British press and on message boards and phone-ins, although they are net contributors to UK coffers, staying typically for short spells before returning to Poland with what they've saved. The 'Borat' stereotype is all over the place. I remember a contributor once on a football message board referring to Eastern European countries collectively as 'Eastbumistan'. Would he have written something like that about Africa or Asia without being censured? --- There are plenty of legitimate areas in which to go after Ukraine, whether it be the rip-off hotel prices, lack of readiness for the tournament, alleged corruption in improving the facilities or the worsening political climate in which the tournament is being held, but cheap racist shots from the British press are shameful. Theo Walcott's brother is probably right about one thing though-“some things aren’t worth risking”-judging by the performance of the England team in major tournaments, people are probably best off staying home.

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