EURO 2012: Apologise to Poland and Ukraine
You’d have thought Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat film had informed most Western commentators’ views of Eastern Europe before Euro 2012 had been able to gather momentum. The talk of rampant racism, of English fans returning in coffins, the slurs on the local cuisine, as if it amounted only to pork fat, and the big-baby moans about the logistics, as if working as a football reporter was somehow a travail no one should have to endure, made Poland and Ukraine seem like dystopian quagmires. Pundits wondered whether granting the competition to the two nations had been a massive error, whether either was capable of managing anything so prestigious, whether UEFA would have been better off organising the tournament elsewhere.
It turned out the event was a success and all the fears misplaced, yet few have held their hands up to admit their guilt at sniping so unjustifiably at Poland and Ukraine.
In making remarks that have been prejudiced at best and racist at worst, many British journalists have exposed the shoddiness of much of their work. With the Leveson Inquiry in progress, you would have thought they could have upped their game, but no, the complacency of the average hack has been on full view. Barely-veiled complaints that the locals don’t speak English, that they are intent on ripping you off and that they might batter you to death, have largely gone uncorrected.
The Borat film represented a milestone in highlighting many westerners’ nasty sentiments towards Eastern Europeans, though the joke was ultimately on the Americans who took Baron Cohen’s character at face value. Newspaper articles followed depicting Polish and other people from the former Iron Curtain as barely civilized beings who failed to accept the supposedly uber-tolerant values that are cherished in the West.
The hypocrisy was and is revolting. I am old enough to recall actor Charlton Heston in 1992 hosting a television programme entitled ‘Let Poland be Poland’, which was broadcast all over the world in support of the Polish people and their Solidarity trade union. Then, when they were embroiled in a fight against the Communists they were deemed heroic. Since they have thrown off their shackles they are more often regarded as interlopers into space that the West jealously guards as its own. Even Ed Miliband, the son of Polish immigrants, has expressed his reservations over letting so many Poles into the UK. When the British economy was on the up, such arguments would never have passed the lips of a Labour leader. Neither would they have been entertained by millions of other British people, happy that the country’s dirty work was being carried out so cheaply and efficiently by the new arrivals from the East.
The irony is that many Poles have gone back home precisely because their own economy has weathered the global crisis more effectively than the UK. Some of Poland’s ability to elude recession has indeed lain in the fact that it was chosen to co-host Euro 2012, with all the infrastructure development that was integral to holding the tournament creating plenty of jobs.
As has been pointed out, rather too willingly by some commentators, Ukraine is a different proposition to Poland, in that it has much further to go before it can claim to belong to the wider European family. Yet it too was at one time held up as a shining example of a people’s desire to rid themselves of the authoritarianism and corruption associated with the Communist period, when it engaged in its ‘Orange Revolution’ in 2004. There was plenty of sentimental pap exuded on the nation’s behalf when that was dominating our TV screens. Then, on the eve of Euro 2012, Panorama and others felt totally at ease in depicting the country as a barbaric backwater.
What underpinned so much of the xenophobic nonsense spouted before, during but notably not after Euro 2012 was a simple fear of the ‘other’. The scare-mongering was groundless and should be apologised for. It was also entirely bigoted. Many of the guilty were the self-righteously politically correct, those who see racism, sexism and other frailties as being rampant in others while failing to recognise that they themselves are suffused in blinkered attitudes. Put simply, they were wrong, and shame on them.