(Il)liberal Nation Projection Through Sport, Culture, Entertainment, and International Broadcasting

CCSE Director Professor Gayle McPherson and Centre members Solomon Ilevbare and I travelled to Manchester on the afternoon of Wednesday 19th October. After checking in to our hotel and getting settled, we headed out for a bite to eat in Chinatown, sampling some authentic cuisine in the form of a ‘Hot Pot’- safe to say some can handle spice more than others!

After a lovely dinner, we retired to the hotel, well-fed and prepared for an early start.

This symposium aimed to address some issues around soft power and cultural diplomacy by expanding debates and bringing together comparative perspectives on how nation projection differs across:

  1. sporting, popular culture, and international media events and channels;
  2. liberal and illiberal contexts;
  3. different kinds of illiberal regimes; and
  4. various media formats and technological platforms.

It is fair to say it certainly achieved these aims, as well as covering topics and issues related to three of the four themes of the CCSE (Arts, cultural diplomacy and soft power, Sport, events and festivals and tourism & Media, communication and digital cultures).

To get us underway, symposium organiser, Dr Vitaly Kazakov (University of Manchester), introduced the symposium which began with a panel focusing on ‘Nation projection through sport: ‘Soft power’, ‘sportswashing’ and ‘sports diplomacy’, chaired by Professor Jonathan Grix (Manchester Metropolitan University). The panel included contributions from Dr. Paul Brannagan and Dr. Seth Perkin (Manchester Metropolitan University), Dr. James Dorsey (Nanyang Technological University), Dr. Kaixiao Jiang (Liverpool Hope University), as well as Adam Dinsmore (University of York) and Dr Laeed Zaghlami (University of Algiers).

Each presenter provided their own nuanced explanation of a particular aspect of soft power and sportswashing. For example, Dr Brannagan and Dr Perkin described ‘Small State strategies through Global Sport’, relating specifically to Qatar and the UAE. They outlined four strands to these strategies:

  • virtual enlargement (attempting to enlarge importance by aligning to the interests of others, which doesn’t promote their indigenousness, but a version of it they want the world to see)
  • niche diplomacy (wielding maximum impact in select areas- with a bundling strategy, for example)
  • norm entrepreneurship (actively reframing established norms and ideas)
  • -bandwagoning (‘cuddling up’ to larger powers).

Adam Dinsmore also articulated how the relationship between WWE and Saudi Arabia (as part of Saudi Vision 2030) has evidenced a somewhat ‘zero-sum model’ of sportswashing, rendering it mutually beneficial for both parties- in terms of the WWE projecting its involvement as an act of philanthropy, and presenting themselves as a liberaliser to support Saudi ‘progress’ (although the definition of ‘progress’ in this context is ambiguous).

Following the first panel, Professor Richard Giulianotti (Loughborough University) gave a thought-provoking keynote on Sport and the ‘Illiberal Turn’: Globalization, Soft Power, and International Development, which highlighted the problematic involvement of illiberal politics in international sport development. Linking this to the UN’s sustainable development goals, Prof Giulianotti also detailed how, too often, many development plans stay only at the level of rhetoric, with governments/ event organisers focusing on the surface level issues, rather than digging deeper to those that can provide sustainable change.

The second panel of the day, chaired by Professor Gayle McPherson (UWS/CCSE), centred on ‘Nation projection through sport: Governance, Values, and Sport Diplomacy’. Presentations came from Professor Barrie Houlihan (Loughborough University), our very own Solomon Ilevbare (UWS/CCSE), Malte Frank (Hengeller Meuller law firm), Dr. Michael Skey (Loughborough University) and Chris Harvey (UK Sport).

Solomon gave a fascinating insight into sportswashing and the nexus between international law and sports diplomacy, which focused on the case of Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup, Beijing 2008 Olympic Games and Russia 2018 FIFA World Cup. He explained how international law is not binding in national contexts, which related to Professor Barrie Houlihan’s presentation, who explained that the signing of international (sports) documents is often a passive action, and therefore the enforcement methods of said charters/treaties is not sufficiently stringent.

A captivating keynote from Dr Sven Daniel Wolfe (University of Lausanne) on the ‘The Hard Edge of Soft Power: Mega-Events, Geopolitics, and Making Nations Great Again’ followed. It  encapsulated how the term ‘soft power’ is often bandied about without any critical appraisal, asking the question, ‘what does it actually mean when we say ‘Nation X increased its soft power?’. Also, he explained how the interrelations between soft and hard power cannot be understated. A point I also found interesting was that we should be careful when labelling states as ‘illiberal’, but rather focus on their actions, saying that they adopt some ‘illiberal practices’, in order to avoid container thinking.

Panel three, chaired by Professor Vera Tolz (University of Manchester), analysed sporting events’ legacies and audiences, and consisted of contributions from Dr Tom Fabian (University of Queensland), Dr Jiri Zakravsky (Zapadoceska University), James Saunders, and Dr Richard Arnold (Muskingum University).

The important role of social media in perception and its role in reconstructing a host country’s image was elucidated by Dr Jiri Zakravsky, in the case of Hungary and its hosting of the Giro d’Italia start in 2022- particularly if athletes are advocating for the host, given their wide-reaching social media presence. Similarly, James Saunders explained how, in the case of England fans around the 2018 World Cup, that they felt the English media both reflected and shaped public opinion. In the case of Russia, Dr Richard Arnold described how Russia attempted to control producers of knowledge, rather than the substance- i.e. manipulation over repression- a technique also used in terms of Russian media coverage in relation to the Ukraine war (as Dr Maksim Alyukov explained in one of Friday’s panels).

Dr Anton Shekhovstov completed the day with the first part of the panel four, addressing the problem of media disinformation and presentation of the “RT in Europe and beyond” report, which lead nicely to day two of the symposium.

Following the completion of day one of the symposium, the majority of the attendees headed out for dinner and drinks, which was a great opportunity to network and to ‘pick the brains’ of the day’s presenters.

Day 2 began with the event’s fourth panel, chaired by Professor Stephen Hutchings (University of Manchester), focused on ‘Nation projection through media: the Case of Russia’. Speakers included Dr Anton Shekhovtsov, Rui Wang (University of Manchester), Dr Maxime Audinet (Institute for Strategic Research, Paris), Ryzhova, A., Vziatysheva, V., Kravets, D., Jungblut, M., and Toepfl, F.(University of Passau), as well as Dr. Maksim Alyukov (King’s College, London) and Dr. Mikhail Batuev (Northumbria University).

The presentations from Ryzhova et al. and Dr Maksim Alyukov focused on the war with Ukraine, where the media relied on disinformation and propaganda, while also playing the victim card (citing ‘Russophobia’), to attempt to create a somewhat homogenous echochamber of Russian unity. However, of course, intensive polarisation between friends and family was caused by the war due to differing beliefs. Dr Maxime Audinet explained the Russia media influence in Mali though the Wagner Group’s self-legitimisation and the synthesis between Russian sovereignism and African ‘panafricanism’, in an attempt to criticise western neocolonialism.

In terms of sports mega events, Dr Mikhail Batuev cited the distinction between ‘everyday’ Russia and the ‘co-branded’ Russia of the 2018 World Cup. Fan feelings for the ‘co-branded’ country they experience when they are attending the event, coupled with media ‘sensationalism’, can end up providing a warped image of a host city or country, that does not reflect the everyday reality.

Two keynotes followed panel four: the first from Dr Precious Chatterje-Doody (The Open University) on ‘Rethinking agency in il(liberal) nation projection: representing, resisting and reconstructing the nation in wartime’, and the second from Professor Stephen Hutchings, on ‘Projecting Russia in a Mediatized World: Recursive Nationhood’.

Dr Chatterje-Doody’s intriguing keynote focused on the top-down and bottom-up national narratives in Russia and Ukraine in the context of the war, and explained how these can mutually reinforce one another. Professor Hutchings emphasised the logic of ‘recursion’ (feedback loop), indicating how in the digital era, it is the driver of multiple Russian performances of nation projection and national belonging. He also mentioned how RT (Russia’s TV channel) has set up hubs in South Africa and South America, and its narratives are also making their way to the US far right.

The fifth and final panel of the symposium, chaired by Dr Vitaly Kazakov, concentrated on ‘Nation projection through cultural production and outputs: cross-regime and historical perspectives’. Contributors included Professor Pınar Özdemir and Professor Melike Aktaş Kuyucu (Ankara University), Professor Peter Rollberg (The George Washington University), Kanika Ahuja (Purdue University), Dr Jonathan Ervine (Bangor University) and Dr Marco Biasoli (University of Manchester).

The presentations from the final panel provided an array of perspectives from nations across the world, from Turkey and the role public relations played in nation projection from 1920-55 (Profs. Pınar Özdemir and Melike Aktaş Kuyucu), to the role film plays in nation projection, in the cases of Kazakhstani sports dramas (Professor Rollberg), Cricket films in India (Kanika Ahuja) and cinematic images of the French football team (Dr Jonathan Irvine). In some cases, there exists a symbiotic relationship between state and cinema, and also in certain instances sport documentaries and film can reflect hegemonic power networks, and at times are somewhat ‘whitewashed’ to be used as a marketing tool.

In the final presentation of the symposium, Dr Marco Biasioli, in the context of Russia, discussed ‘songwashing’, in that music is used as a tool for internal legitimisation through distraction. He noted Russia’s entry for Eurovision, Manizha, who was born in Tajikistan, and is a feminist, pro LGBTQ+ activist, who uses music to engage with social issues. Her performance allowed for Russia to advocate for her values on the international stage, without actually promoting or implementing them nationally- a form of virtue signalling.

As well as noting down empirical findings of the studies presented, the methods used in each of the speakers’ studies were also key to remember, which links to the CCSE’s objective ‘to utilise a range of robust and innovative methodological approaches to produce high quality research outputs that contribute to academic excellence, and influence policy and practice across the fields of culture, sport, events, and tourism’.

A sincere thanks has to go to Dr Vitaly Kazakov for organising a fascinating few days, the ESRC for funding such an event, and to the CCSE for allowing me my first experience of an academic conference- one I won’t forget.

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