Mandy Pearse: Beyond the Olympic torch

So torch mania has hit Britain. A nation facing the worst recession in its history, with unprecedented cuts to public services, and yet it seems all it takes is a few people in dodgy tracksuits, a brassy cone and a spluttering flame to get the crowds lining the streets and cheering.

Pearse: Hysteria is high around the torch
Pearse: Hysteria is high around the torch
Perhaps Juvenal was right. The old Roman trick of bread and circuses does keep the masses from rebelling. The only thing is this time there is precious little bread and a circus that most people will not get to see.

So the torch is what we get. The ultimate PR stunt.

And how are we supposed to view the torch? The media continually allude to its history and then decline to say what that history is.

Dreamed up by chief propagandist Goebbels for the Berlin Olympics and immortalised by the Fuhrer’s favourite film maker, Leni Riefenstahl, in her 1938 film Olympiad, the torch run could be seen as the PR coup of the 20th century.

The passage of the torch is loaded with symbolism. The flame that must never go out, taken from Greek and Roman mythology. The runners handing the baton to one another symbolising the passing of that heritage to legitimise the Nazi regime. Moving swiftly on.

So, how is this Olympic torch run going? So far, so good. Only the scandal of the £495 torches being flogged off by runners on eBay. Mind you, what exactly do you do with a metre-long firelighter. Looks rather out of scale on the mantelpiece.

Media hysteria is high with the kind of fawning delivery usually reserved for a Royal event. The BBC, well it is the official media partner, has almost wet itself with delight at the success of the torch cam.

Local newspapers have gone for the souvenir edition, stuffed full of cheap content written by PR folk about the plucky local runners and awash with photos to flog to the readers. It’s a last rally for a patient in terminal decline.

And what about the public sector? A chance for the councils and police to be associated with a positive event rather than with cuts to services, strikes and gold-plated pensions. Don’t count on it.

Wait until the autumn comes, the recession still persists and dear old Uncle Eric insists on more cuts. The media euphoria will be long gone. No Christmas lights this year? No street lights on at night this winter? No police to be seen in rural areas?

The question on all their lips will be just how much did all that security and entertainment for the torch cost?

So colleagues enjoy it while the sunshine while it lasts.

Mandy Pearse is director at Seashell Communications and a member of the CIPR's Local Public Services group

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