Bernie, the Bahrain Boycott, and Big Business

They say its hard to get a man to understand a thing when his salary depends upon him not understanding it, and there is no better example of this than Bernie Ecclestone’s apparently innocent insistence that life is so good in Bahrain, that there is no problem in hosting Grands Prix there for the foreseeable future. And this despite repeated calls on Formula 1 from Bahraini civil society to boycott Bahrain on account of the country’s brutal suppression of it’s own population.

I should disclose that I love the Grands Prix. I shouldn’t as it represents all kinds of excesses, but it’s been a guilty pleasure of mine since I was a child and I eagerly await the start of every season with the fervour and passion that most blokes reserve for football. And discussing why its not a procession of cars going around a track would take up a whole other post.

But I can’t watch Bahrain. It’s unconscionable.

Unlike Bernie, I can’t square entertainment with repression of human rights. It doesn’t seem like Bernie has thought through his corporate social responsibility policy, but then, this is the same man who donated £1 million to Labour in a move that was completely unrelated to the extension Formula 1 was seeking from looming regulation designed to limit tobacco advertising.

The distasteful hosting of Formula 1 racing in Bahrain, though, is just a part of a wider sporting, business and political malaise in which it seems to have become the norm to accept the unacceptable in the name of shareholder profits.

Sport is being capitalised upon as discrete packages of entertainment sold to broadcast companies which in their turn stand to make or lose huge sums of money out of the arrangement. If we have learnt anything from the recent and ongoing banking crisis, the hacking scandals, and the tax minimisation practices of certain organisations, it is that all thoughts of communal or corporate social responsibilities take second place to profits. Every time.

When we are asked to look at successful individuals and supposed role models – sporting superstars, hot-shot businessmen (it is mostly business men we seem to worship, not much look in for womenfolk in corporate boardrooms) and politicians – and to judge them on the results they get, rather than how they got them, it’s akin to saying that sportsmanship does not matter, that only the result – sporting success, business profit or political domination – counts. Is that really what the UK feels? It seems not when we look at the backlash against organisations that make billions in profit but pay little corporation tax.

Every year that Formula 1 fans make a point of boycotting Bahrain and publicly denouncing that race is another year of sub-optimal performance for the rights holders of Formula 1. It’s another year that team sponsors suffer the ignominy of association with a repressive regime and the effect this will have on their brand image.

Ecclestone will continue to stage Grands Prix in Bahrain so long as it profits him to do so. Whilst as an individual I can’t do too much about the banking crisis, media regulation, or the tax practices of global conglomerates, I can make a point of not watching the Grands Prix.

We each make choices, and in a world where everything is tightly interdependent upon everything else, our choices are our voices. The choice to withhold our custom and goodwill from organisations that engage in irresponsible behaviour is there for all to take.

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