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.