Societies’ secrecy hides Olympics good news
This post could have brought you news of Wednesday night’s meeting between the organisers of 2012’s London Olympics and local societies in Blackheath and Greenwich, about the planned equestrian events in Greenwich Park and their ramifications. Unfortunately, the Blackheath Society did not respond to a request for access to the meeting, and I was told in no uncertain terms that I was not welcome to attend by the Westcombe Society’s chairman, Gordon Baker, because I was not a member.
So, I took my press card, and went to my neighbouring residents’ association’s AGM instead, where there was beer and crisps and a warm welcome. And a news story too. I’m not a member there, either. So, instead of the welcome news that 2012 organising body LOCOG announced at the meeting, here’s a photograph of Blackheath Halls, where the event took place. Nice, isn’t it?
To be honest, I should have got myself organised for this meeting a while back, and I was prepared for a friendly knock-back. But I didn’t realise it was a ticketed event until recently, and so dropped the Blackheath Society a line on Monday, asking if I could come along to observe. The meeting was organised by them in conjunction with the Westcombe Society and the Greenwich Society as well as the Friends of Greenwich Park for their members. Clearly, with the massive interest in the Olympics around here, and huge fears about 2012, I hoped a request for access would be looked upon kindly. No chance. No reply, to be exact.
On Wednesday afternoon, I fired off a note to LOCOG mentioning this, and asking if they had any plans for any more public meetings in the area, since I was mulling over a post on the subject. After all, anti-equestrian body NOGOE have ramped up their PR offensive lately, are claiming 13,000 signatures on an petition, and are planning a “hands around the park” event on 11 October. The Olympics’ organisers, meanwhile, haven’t been seen much since the public meeting at the O2 arena in December – save for a couple of sessions with a stall in the park itself, and appeared to me to be starting to lose ground in the battle for Greenwich Park. LOCOG told me to contact the Greenwich Society (by then it was too late in the day) and said they’d get back to me on the meetings. Fair enough on the last point.
I’m lucky enough to have done enough professionally to have a press card, so I thought I’d wander up to Blackheath Halls and see if I could pop in. NOGOE-rs waiting outside, smiles for me on the door, best suits everywhere, then stopped because I didn’t have a ticket, directed to a gentleman over there, was knocked back, explained I was a journalist who’d been following events and pointed out that others might like to know of what went on at the meeting. I was politely asked to wait for the chair of the Westcombe Society. Fair enough.
But the hostility I received from Gordon Baker was quite unlike anything I’ve encountered before. He didn’t even try to listen to me. I was made to feel like I was challenging corruption at at a croquet club, not trying to squeeze my way into a residents’ meeting. Towards the end, it became quite comic. Mr Baker speaks very well, but looked straight past me as he repeated: “No, it’s a members’ meeting. You can’t come in.” Was any other media there? “No, it’s a members’ meeting.”
“There are going to be other LOCOG consulation issues,” a younger gentleman with him said. “It’s not like it’s unique…” (Well, it was the first time LOCOG representatives have stood on stage south of the river and spoken to the public for nine months, but that’s by the by.)
It was time for Mr Baker to start up again: “There are LOCOG members here, and there are NOGOE people outside, and some of them will come in because they’re members.”
– “So why can’t other…”
Gordon Baker: “I have explained to you – this is a members’ meeting, there’s nothing more to say. I’m sorry, you can’t come in.”
- “Gordon Baker, wasn’t it?”
“Yes! Put it in your headlines!”
I thanked him and shook his hand.
“I don’t know why you can’t accept my word that it’s a members’ meeting. It’s a perfectly simple proposition – it’s not something that’s negotiable, it’s a members’ meeting. Right?”
I was getting a bit tired of being spoken down to here, and asked – “It’s a very good attitude that the members of these societies have to their neighbours, isn’t it?”
Mr Baker spoke slowly. “People pay their subscriptions to come to events like this.”
- “Should journalists be able to come and see what happens?”
“It’s a members’ meeting, I’m sorry, that’s all there is to it.”
Ah, all the local democracy money can buy… I knew it was a bit of a gamble rocking up on the night, but I really didn’t expect to be spoken to as if I was some errant member of the lower orders. I’ve never lived in the catchment area of any of the amenity societies, and, like the vast majority of the people of the Greenwich area, have had very little to do with them. I actually had a fairly high opinion of the Westcombe Society before I encountered Mr Baker, having grown up just outside its catchment (literally the wrong side of the tracks) and seen its newsletters, and had no opinion of the others.
But… is this all we’re going to get from LOCOG? A meeting that’s only open to a very select, very unrepresentative group of people – most of them over 60 – who’ve basically paid to be there? And who won’t allow journalists in? Is this how much the people of the Greenwich area’s views matter to LOCOG? I really hope not. Clearly I’m only Nobby the blogger, but this website aside, as a journalist that is looking to follow the effects of 2012 on my community, I thought Gordon Baker’s behaviour was shocking. All I was trying to do was sit in on an event about something of massive public interest. Are these the people LOCOG think represent us?
Andrew Gilligan issued one of his regular beatings to the Greenwich Society on greenwich.co.uk earlier this week – I’m no expert on that particular argument, but I think the row masks the wider danger of using these societies as a substitute for actually talking to local people, who are worried about what day to day life will be like in the summer of 2012, and want to know if they’ll get their park back safe and sound. Wednesday’s meeting at Blackheath Halls shows LOCOG seems to have fallen right into that trap.
This sounds like very good news for Greenwich – the Olympic Route Network would have put “no stopping” restrictions on one of the area’s main shopping streets. However, because – according to Mr Baker – no journalists were allowed into the event, that’s all we know. Hopefully more will emerge during Thursday.