Oh Bernie, how could you?
Those who have seen the Formula One chief as a paragon of transparency, accountability and good governance in sport, and indeed modest good taste in his refined enjoyment of his personal wealth too, will find themselves most cruelly disillusioned this morning.
The Bahrain authorities are certainly grateful to Bernie Ecclestone for the “business as usual” signal that the Formula One decision sends. The cancellation of the race would have been a major blow to the project of demonstrating the “normalisation” of the Kingdom after the decision to attack peaceful protestors and send in Saudi tanks to suppress moderate pro-democracy demonstrations which were primarily seeking a path towards democratic constitutional monarchy.
The cancellation of the race would not quite have signalled pariah status for the Bahrain regime. The decisive factor was what is described as “safety”, one important concern, though perhaps also a euphemism for the ability to get cancellation insurance at rates which would not eat prohibitively into the race’s profits. The grateful Bahraini authorities will doubtless have been willing to address that concern, though their assurances about a safe and peaceful environment can not be guaranteed. (The teams, to their credit, made clear that they were against racing in Bahrain, though none appears to be prepared to sacrifice a contractual commitment to uphold that principle, even though they could yet, by acting collectively, scupper the plan).
Bahrain’s dictators believe that they are back in pole position. They are taking a risk that deserves to backfire. The Independent editorial quotes the head of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights as saying that the Formula One decision sends a crushing message to the protestors that they are forgotten. The question now is how to show that this is not the case.
Bahrain has a government that has sought to assiduously shepherd its reputation with western elites and decision-makers as moderate and reformist. That image was battered by its violent crackdown on peaceful protest. Yet, even then, events in Egypt and Libya meant that Bahrain was usually only a fleeting focus of international coverage, on the foreign news pages but rarely the front pages. It has been the controversy over Formula One which has kept Bahrain most prominently in international headlines – and which will now continue to do so.
So the Formula One race itself should now be a focal point of protest and pressure to ensure that the Bahrain government ends this PR exercise with the public reputation that their violent actions merit.
As I have argued before, the strategic principle behind this should be “contextual universalism” – what do those who I wish to support want (and not want) from me? The Formula One race has now become an important opportunity to show solidarity with those in Bahrain who seek the democratic rights to free expression that we can take for granted. Advocates of human rights outside Bahrain would benefit from a steer from within about what forms of protest and solidarity would help those who we seek to help (and whether there are types of external pressure that could be counterproductive).
Given the suppression of free expression, the international media has an important role in seeking to inform civic debate about the form which such solidarity might best take, while social media enables a rapid dissemination of such strategies. Blogs can take small steps, like promoting the most informative coverage of what is going on in Bahrain, and giving a platform and greater reach to advocates of human rights.
Initial signs are that Bahraini rights advocates would welcome an international storm of protest, and are bravely planning to use the race to return to the streets, with Nabeel Rajad of the Bahraini Centre for Human rights telling the BBC that
"Already they have called the day of that racing 'a day of rage', where they're going to come out everywhere, in every city of Bahrain, to show anger to what the Bahrain government, the Bahrain regime, is doing towards their own people."
Formula One is not in a position to right every wrong in the world. But it is responsible for the consequences of its own decisions. It seems likely that the very fact of the race – with the authorities under pressure to demonstrate “normality”, and so probably stepping up a new crackdown, because of the race itself. This makes the decision to proceed neither ethically defensible, nor even prudentially sensible.
There is still an opportunity to get the decision reversed and, at least, to ensure that the public relations consequences of proceeding with the race are negative for Bahrain’s international reputation.
With the race in October, there is time to ensure a concerted campaign to achieve this if human rights advocates, media outlets and concerned citizens can coordinate effective pressure.
So how could Formula One drivers, teams and sponsors be pressed on this issue? What actions could we reasonably expect them to take to demonstrate their discontent about this decision, and indeed to protect their own interests and reputations from being damaged by it?
What form of challenge should be put to western governments, businesses and others engaged in the Kingdom to show what actions they are prepared to take to support, and not actively assist in the suppression of, fundamental principles of human rights? How could MPs and MEPs from across the party spectrum in Britain and other countries cooperate to press these issues?
How will international human rights bodies take the opportunity to increase the salience and profile of the Bahraini human rights advocates who deserve our support? What routes can they suggest as to how the media, formula one fans and citizens generally can practically demonstrate support and solidarity for Bahrain’s democrats?
With the BBC having the rights to televise the race in Britain, is it now an important test of the channel’s broadcasting integrity that they ensure this major political controversy over the race is fully reflected in its coverage. Were this to be soft pedalled, it could well raise questions about whether an expensive contract for sporting rights creates tensions and conflicts with the responsibility for telling the story straight. I would expect the BBC to report on the full range of Bahraini opinion about what holding this race means, and to be absolutely clear if the authorities seek to impose reporting restrictions on their doing so. If such restrictions are in place, might the screening of the race itself be challenged?
Perhaps the BBC Trust should be pressed to indicate it is aware of such concerns, and will be ensuring that they are met. If they want to show that they are unbowed, the least the BBC should do is to commission a Panorama special on the Bahrain crackdown, and who in the west is playing their part alongside Bernie Ecclestone in the PR campaign to forget about it and move on.
It has never been possible to keep politics out of sport. It is one arena through which we contest important questions of identity and values. Just about every dictatorship has thought about how to make use of the cultural, economic and social power of sport for its own ends. Democrats should not depart the field but should work out how to respond in kind.
Bahrain’s Grand Prix could yet become an expensive and hubristic own goal. But that will now depend on what we can do, as citizens, to make it so.