Bahrain… safety and morality.

I was sent a tweet yesterday, which made an insinuation that because I was employed to work in Formula 1, I was being paid to not “understand” the political and moral questions over the hosting of this weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix.

I took some umbrage to this, not least because until this week I believe I was the only F1 journalist to have set foot in Bahrain since the 2010 Formula 1 Grand Prix, but more so because I have a degree in Political Science. I believe I have precisely the correct background not only to understand the very complex issues at stake in the Gulf State, but also to comment on them. As a student of both law and politics in my lifetime, I could and some might argue that I should be writing and broadcasting about the morality of holding a race this weekend in Bahrain.

But here’s the thing. I’m not a political journalist. Nor am I a war correspondent. I travel to do my job armed not with a flak jacket and a helmet, but with a microphone and a book of Formula 1 statistics.

The journalist in me, and the student of politics in me, wants to go to Bahrain to report on both sides of the political argument, to hear from the government and from the protesters. My colleagues Ian Parkes, Byron Young and Kevin Eason are doing just that this week. And they all do so not with backgrounds in politics, but as sports journo lifers. And in some ways, I feel it to be a shame that they have been placed in that position by their employers, and to a certain extent by the sport itself. Because they have had to put themselves in harms way, when they didn’t sign up for that. They signed up to report on motor racing… not riots, not protests, not civil unrest, tear gas and molotov cocktails.

The question over whether to hold the race or not, from an external perspective at least, is all about politics and money. By racing we are seen as endorsing a regime with ethical infractions, which are coming under heavy questioning from the international community, in return for a large wedge of cash. Some in the sport have taken a moral decision not to attend this week’s race. But, at the same time, such morally guided decisions did not seem to affect their thought process on whether to attend the Chinese Grand Prix. But if an individual is so guided by a moral stand on political freedoms for one Nation State, then why not for another?

I was given the opportunity by SPEED, my employers, not to attend the Bahrain Grand Prix. But I have decided that I will. I have made that much clear both in this blog and on twitter.

My reasoning right now is simple. Formula 1 has said that it does not wish to become embroiled in the politics of any country in which it races. This is a perfectly fine stance to take at base level – sport and politics are uneasy bed fellows. As such, the only consideration for the sport over the hosting of the race was whether or not Bahrain itself is a safe enough place to visit and to race. The information provided to the FIA is that yes, it is safe. That’s why we’re having the race. And that’s why I’m going.

My opinions on Bahrain, on its regime, on the rights and wrongs of the actions of the protest movement or those of the police, have no place in my reporting of the sport.

Would you have expected me in China to write and broadcast about the ongoing situation in Tibet, or the severe restrictions placed over China’s own journalists, artists and free thinkers in a country still oppressed by the strictures of a post-Communist, Marxist/Leninist government?

Some of you will think that I am being blinkered. That I am closing my eyes to the realities of a country I am visiting to report on a motor race, and thus one which will benefit from the positive publicity generated by such an event. And I see your point. I really do.

But I am not blinkered. I am not blind to people’s basic human desire and right to have their voices heard and to be blessed with the same democratic freedoms which we hold dear and so often take for granted.

However my job is to report on racing. How I feel about where we race should not come into it. The only thing that will stop me going, as indeed the only thing which will stop the sport from racing, is the question of personal safety. Because I love my sport and I love my job, but I love my daughter more. Is that selfish? Possibly. But it is a position we have been forced into by the sport deciding that it is safe to race.

Perhaps Formula 1 has taken its destiny out of its own hands by aiming to stay out of the politics of Bahrain. If the safety of which it has assured us does not come to pass, then the sport and its decision makers will suffer the consequences. And it will hit the sport where it will hurt the most… its pockets.

As for me, as I have said before, all I can do is trust the FIA that the region is safe enough for us to visit. And from the messages coming from colleagues already out in Bahrain, it would seem that, thus far, it is.

I will not go searching for trouble. I will not, as colleagues braver than I have done, go searching for riots and protesters. But know that if they come looking for us, if the smell of gasoline or tear gas invades the sporting arena in which my interest lies, and if for one moment I feel that the level of safety that we have been assured is, in fact, a fallacy, then I for one will be on the first plane home.

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33 thoughts on “Bahrain… safety and morality.

  1. I fully applaud you for your honesty. I believe the race should go ahead so long as personnel are safe.

    Its not F1′s place to be the moral high ground. Its a sport not a political movement. I understand peoples beliefs and I too am ashamed at both sides in Bahrain. Eye for an eye is their mentality, western morals and ideals dont suit eastern beliefs, westerners kerp trying to impose them and thats a problem.

    What knarks me is the human rights mob. F1 cannot be partial. If we dont go in Bahrain for human rights, China shouldnt be on the calender. Some would then say the USA shouldnt have one for their track record. Even stupidet, Japan shouldnt have one due to whaling and Sharking which I abhore, but you cant not go there on personal beliefs.

    • I was writing down some key points in response to Will’s blog. I am glad that I read your comments first. I totally agree with what you have said. I was watching the BBC lunchtime news which featured Amnesty International’s latest assessment of the current situation. Roll on Monday!

    • Incorrect. Going to Bahrain is showing support for their political “elites”, which is really just one big family. Going to Bahrain will be “embroiled in the politics of the country”. Not going there would be neutral.

      Yes, China and USA also have some human right issues, but that’s not the point here. Why is going to Bahrain not the same as going to China or USA? Because those countries, as much as they have on their conscience, don’t try to mix our favourite sport with their politics. They don’t invent “UniF1ed” slogans to reinforce their propaganda and pretend that everything is fine. Going to USA is not a sign of support for governor Rick Perry, president Obama, or any other politician.

  2. The fact that you decided to attend the race can be interpreted as support for the Bahrain political regime. My respect for you is lost.

    • dont be pathetic. Unless your an armchair moral warrior i dont understand your pathetic comment. How is going where the sport goes supporting the regime?

      People like you that make me sick; If you arent happy, dont watch F1, dont watch the Grand prix, shut spouting your mouth in protest and stop talking about the grand prix if its ‘such’ a violation of your morals.

  3. I think the main difference between Bahrain and China is just how inextricably linked F1 is with the ruling class.

    China is showing, tentative at least, steps toward becoming a more modern society.

    Bahrain appears from the outside at least, to be moving backwards.

    In Bahrain F1 is such an overt trophy for the ruling classes, whereas China simply doesn’t give out that vibe.

    In China the Grand Prix didn’t cause the lockdown of villages and the overt suppression of dissent. In Bahrain, quite clearly it is.

    This is why in contrast with China, F1 journalists in Bahrain should be questioning F1′s motivations for being there, and particularly holding Bahraini powerbrokers to account for their actions and the oppression of their people.

    They don’t listen to their own subjects and only appear to care what the outside thinks. There is a moral obligation to bring pressure to bear on them.

  4. Absolutely spot on. Why some of your colleagues are actually looking for trouble and spreading it all over twitter is beyond me.

    • They’re not trying to stir up trouble. Their employers have asked them to be in Bahrain early to gain an understanding of the situation and the views of both sides of the political argument. With that as their remit, I have found their reporting thus far to be an incredible insight into Bahrain. I trust these journalists and know that what they report will be written without hint of bias or favouritism to anyone.

    • I think they are doing a great job of actually giving us the fans, and everyone traveling to Bahrain some first hand information on the situation.
      Would have been nice if we had been getting more of that in the past year, but better see publications take the opportunity to do so now, than never.

  5. Thank for an honest report, of why you do what you do. And why you do not.
    I do not claim to be an expert on Middle East Politics. But I don understand how, when you take a job you have agreed to do what your employer tells you to do. And there are times you have to make a decision if you choose to remain in their employ or not.

    In todays economy it can be extremely difficult to risk your job for political beliefs.

    As I have said.
    I wish you, and all the Press people, Teams, and support staff’s, a safe journey.
    I will say a prayer for all of your safety. While you bring us the Sport we love.

    • I worked for the Bahrain government and saw their discrimination and abusive behaviour first hand. I quit. Easy decision: I was being paid by dictators = I support dictators.

      And yes, it has been financially difficult. So what? The money or the right and moral thing? Another easy decision.

  6. Great to see a journalist who has made the distinct boundaries between sport and politics and the implications of both. Fully agree with your standpoint and support it.

  7. I appreciate your candor and as a journalist, you have to do your job. I wish you a safe journey. I’ve read all the arguments both for and against going to the race and have synthesized them to these 6 bullet points on my blog:

    http://karakullake.blogspot.com/2012/04/6-reasons-to-boycott-bahrain-f1-grand.html

    Also, Bob Varsha wrote a succinct piece on Bahrain’s situation on Speed’s site, which is also worth a read.

    http://formula-one.speedtv.com/article/varsha-a-rocky-road-ahead-for-f1-with-bahrain-grand-prix/

  8. A very heartfelt and honest blog post, thank you. I commend you for your dedication to the sport which you follow. One point which has escaped this post though, is the link between the rulers of Bahrain, its circuit and the race itself. That is besides the interests that the country has in the sport, and the ruling family’s connections with the FIA President.

    I find it tremendously sad that you and your colleagues alike, including those whom are as passionate and devoted as you are to the sport, have been made to be a part of this unpleasant event, and forced into a difficult situation. Stay safe.

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  10. While I appreciate your candor and respect your decision to go to Bahrain, I strongly disagree with your conclusion that the Bahrain Grand Prix is apolitical.

    The signs that politics are at the heart of the Bahrain Grand Prix are, sadly, everywhere. Witness the state news agency’s analysis (17/4/12) of what it calls “the most important sporting event witnessed by the region”:
    [The Grand Prix] portrays the capability and the success of the Kingdom of Bahrain in organizing and hosting such a unique global sports event thanks to the Kingdom’s political and security stability. (http://www.bna.bh/portal/en/news/504253)

    As a Ph.D. candidate in political science, I am painfully aware of the role Western support has played in propping up bad governments in the Arab world. Bahrain is no exception, and it is shameful to see F1 contribute to this problem.

    Regarding China — China’s population is more than 1,000 times that of Bahrain. The impact of a major international event, hosted and choreographed by the ruling regime, in such a small country is not comparable to F1′s influence in China. A more apt analogy might be the Beijing Olympics.

    Responsibility for this moral failing hangs squarely on the heads of Bernie Ecclestone and Jean Todt. As you so rightly claim, It is not up to F1′s employees and competitors or motorsport journalists to pass moral judgments. But the governance of the sport has lost its compass when its leaders willfully delude themselves with Bahraini assurances and send the F1 circus marching to the beat of the autocrats’ drum.

    Your admirable defense of journalists and staff is admirable, but you ought not extend it to the amoral decisions of Ecclestone and the FIA.

  11. You have my respect for stepping up to this assignment. Make sure that Speed acknowledges that in your reporting this weekend and thank your daughter for us when you get back safely.

  12. I would like to thank you for your honesty.

    I would also plead the international audience not to get all their info from armchair/keyboard warriors who are only over exaggerating the situation.

    I also find it pathetic that some journos are calling them “peaceful pro-democratic protesters”. When did Hezbollah become peaceful and pro-democratic? They are looking to make Bahrain a theocratic nation that follows the Ayatollah of Iran. Luckily, all of us in the Arab world know whats really going on. I am a Bahraini citizen born and raised, this has never changed. Hopefully the media will stop with this propaganda BS and that the Human Rights Orgs truly become Human rights orgs.

    Seeing is believing, and trust me, truth always prevails.

    Thank you again.

  13. I couldn’t agree more with this post.

    Be safe Will. That’s all I hope for all of F1 this weekend – a safe and peaceful race where everyone gets home in one piece…

  14. I respect your position Mr. Buxton and your willingness to write about it. I have a similar academic background (that I am in grad school for) and when one analyzes the situation as a whole, it is unsurprisingly complex. I have argued my philosophical position regarding sport, politics, and the morality behind what is about to take place. I write for a motorsport website and have found myself experiencing an internal conflict regarding the degree to which I should keep F1 and sociopolitical situations separated.

    It was refreshing to read your blog post as it sometimes helps to share the human aspect on both sides. I know there are moral conflicts of your own that you must be experiencing but I admire that you stick to your duties. I wish you the best in your travels and that everyone will be safe.

    However….. :)

    The only thing I want to point out is that there are stark differences between China and Bahrain. F1 has the power to make a huge impact on the economic and sociopolitical situation in Bahrain. In short, this is a unique situation where the sport actually can exasperate a sociopolitical problem and holds indirect influence. This is not the case in China or other countries who do not have the best human rights records. I think it is unfair to make those comparisons but at the same time I understand the point you were trying to make.

    When has it ever been possible to keep morality out of anything? F1 risks stirring up something it should not even be involved with. Not having a race seems like the simple solution. By not having a race F1 doesn’t risk indirectly exasperating a human rights issue, doesn’t risk associating itself with bad PR, and doesn’t risk the safety of all involved. There are plenty of other venues to hold a F1 race at. It doesn’t make logical sense for the sport to risk it’s credibility by allowing the race to take place. ow up (pun not intended). The reason why Bernie is even saying it is peaceful over there is because the ruling authority has instigated a massive crackdown on the civilian population. Yeah I am sure it is peaceful for your friends who aren’t members of the minority. How can the leadership of F1 claim to be about safety and go ahead with this? How could they claim to be against something like racism (which falls under human rights) yet risk aggravating a human rights related issue by going ahead with the Bahrain Grand Prix? They certainly don’t deny that the race has an impact on Bahrain. They just deny that the sport involves itself with the sociopolitical situation.

    Stating that the sport does not intend to involve itself with the current situation is great. However, that doesn’t magically wash away the fact that by having the race they risk adding fuel to the fire. It doesn’t free them of their moral responsibilities.

    Point being… not having this race could have easily solved this problem and not put so much on the line. It could have also set a clear message and standard that F1 wishes to uphold. There was an easier and better way to solve this. However, as Mr. Buxton rightfully points out, it is also about money and politics.

  15. Bahrain having political strife and Bahrain having a race day are no more incompatible than Bahrain having political strive and Bahrain engaging in foreign trade or the daily opening of the Bahrain Stock Exchange. Racers race, revolutionaries revolt. Neither stops for the other. May the race endure.

    To digress, Buxton, you have elbow acquaintance with Hamilton. Advice him that his serious professional racing persona is greatly compromised by his effeminate attachment to adorning his earlobes, not to mention its negative effects on his balance. The day he again races with unfettered ears is the day he unbinds himself from loser-accessorizing and again becomes a non-artificial wizard on wheels. Trust me on this.

    Looking forward to Sunday at BIC. Race on.

  16. Pingback: Notas Sobre o Bahrein | P1 Formula1

  17. Will,

    Focus on doing what you love, wherever you may be, then go home to your daughter and teach her the same. Be safe Will.

  18. Might as well throw in my 5 cents as well, even though it’s late and all.

    From my point of view, I respect the fact that you decided to choose the option which didn’t compromise your own moral and/or ethic code. There are many different contributing factors one has to keep in mind for every situation such as the one you have described above. I’ve met so many people that have compromised their own, well, beliefs and/or moral code that I couldn’t later say of they were truthful when talking/typing/writing anymore.

    Good luck with your in-devours, and prosper.

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