A sports journalist’s principle focus is quite simple really. They are employed to cover sporting events. Well then, what happens in those situations in which a sporting event becomes politicised? On an ethical level are sports journalists suitably qualified to cover these highly politicised sporting events? Daniel Paddock investigates the curious case of the 2012 Formula One Bahrain Grand Prix.
As Sebastian Vettel crossed the finish line of the Bahrain International Circuit to win for Red Bull Racing on April 22 2012, you could easily have forgiven anyone watching for thinking that that weekend had been business as usual for Formula One. The on track action that was beamed around the world via the Formula One Management (FOM) live feed did little to suggest anything untoward was taking place in Bahrain. It was only because a small group of journalists cast off their tags as F1 reporters that the actual picture of what was really going on in Bahrain became clear.
What they witnessed, was first-hand evidence of human rights abuses being committed in the name of the Bahraini regime. This was the very same regime that was paying $40 million for the privilege to host Formula One in Bahrain that weekend, and who were also using the Formula One name to promote the tagline of ‘UniF1ed’- One Nation in Celebration. In this case Formula One, the sport which states in Article 1 of the its very own statute that “The FIA shall refrain from manifesting racial, political or religious discrimination in the course of its activities and from taking any action in this respect” was clearly, and quite wrongly, being used as a political tool by the Bahraini authorities.
The scope of the reporting by the journalists in Bahrain does certainly raise an interesting ethical dilemma. How should a sports journalist act when they are put in the position of covering a highly politicised sporting event? Should they, as many of the F1 press chose to that week, focus principally on the sporting spectacle that they are there to report on? Or, should they instead as journalists go forth and cover the event from the human angle to make sure that the public are fully informed of what is going on in that situation. This is what the aforementioned group of journalists did, even though they were technically employed as Formula One journalists, not as political correspondents.
The choice over what to do actually resulted in the members of the F1 press who simply wished to cover the racing criticising other journalists, particularly those who worked for the national newspapers and news agencies, of having chosen to go out to Bahrain looking for trouble to report on, rather than doing their jobs and reporting on the race.
Tom Cary, the Formula 1 correspondent for The Telegraph, and one of the journalists who ventured out from the media centre summed up the situation well when he wrote: “The sad thing is this crisis was entirely predictable. Formula One journalists have copped a certain amount of criticism this week for venturing into areas of conflict to ask for people’s thoughts about the race, to try to report on what is happening, for deigning to be reporters, in other words.”
Kevin Eason, the Motor Racing Correspondent for The Times, is perhaps better suited than anyone to comment on the ethical dilemma that arose in Bahrain that week as he was himself one of the journalists who broke ranks from the rest of the F1 press and went to report on events away from the race track.
When prompted to speak about those members of the F1 press who had criticised him for investigating the human side of the Grand Prix story, Eason instantly turned on them, saying: “A lot of the media centre guys live in a bubble. They’re Formula One journalists. All they live for is tyres and lap times and stuff so they weren’t particularly willing to look outside of that bubble.” He added: “I certainly got a bit fed-up of smart arsed people in the media room who thought it was rather amusing and pointless. In fact there were a few pieces written by bloggers and a few people in the media centre which were quite offensive, particularly as they were sitting on their backsides in the media centre pontificating, while some of us were getting our hands dirty.”
He also fiercely denied any notion that he had been told to go and find trouble in Bahrain, as some critics had suggested. He said: “Another thing that really irritated me was the idea that I’d been told by an editor to go and dig dirt, which was absolute total bollocks. I actually rang my boss, and told him that I was leaving China early to go see Bahrain immediately, and they just said “yep” if you want to do it, you do it. So there was no coercion from them.”
Similarly, Eason spoke with pride of having done the right thing in taking the decision to have covered the human side of the Bahrain Grand Prix story. He even managed to include a final little dig at the pure F1 journalists who had criticised his work. He said: “I’m paid to be a journalist so that’s why I decided to go and have a look really, which is how I came to be on the frontline running around and pretending to be a war reporter for a week.” He added: “I am a proper journalist. I spent 20 odd years in news and features. I covered The Clapham Rail Disaster, The Kings Cross Fire, The M1 Jet Crash and Dianna’s Death. I covered about 10 or 12 elections. I’ve covered union disputes, factory closures. Yeah I’ve been around a few houses before I got to Formula One so I’m a journalist that’s what I do, unlike them. They are Formula One journalist that’s what they do.” What Eason’s comments highlight perfectly is the bitter mood that even 8 months later is still left hanging over the F1 press because of the differing ways that the F1 journalists chose to cover the events of that week.
Edd Straw, F1 Editor of Autosport magazine and http://www.autosport.com, was on the other side of the F1 press divide to Eason. Straw, like most other journalists who wrote for either motorsport related magazines or websites kept his eyes firmly on the racing that week. When questioned regarding why he chose to stay focused on the racing, he said: “I was there for Autosport. My instructions were to go and cover the race, and not to get involved in that sort of thing. If you’re working for a national newspaper or Press Association, Reuters, that is part of their job to go and do that and they were right to do it.” He added: “I was under no obligation to go, but I did go on the basis that it was my job to go.”
When the conversation moved onto the topic of whether he believed that he was himself qualified to cover the political side of the situation in Bahrain, he remarked: “Qualified to an extent yes. I mean I’m not qualified to do a detailed, in-depth fully informed analysis with all the historical context etcetera, of the situation there, but what I am qualified to do is to try and look at the effect the race is having.” Straw then commented on his belief that any good journalist would make the best of their situation. He said: “If you take an F1 journalists or a sports journalist and expect them to be operating at the same level as a professional political journalist. I think that you’re going to be disappointed. I think as long as the journalist in question knows their own limitations and tries to do what a journalist should always do, be straight with what they are reporting and be as subjective as they can, and do what research they can to try and understand the situation, I think that’s all that can be expected.”
Ian Parkes, the Motorsport Correspondent for The Press Association, who flew into Bahrain on the Monday morning alongside Kevin Eason, also makes a number of valid points. As he explained: “We had already decided that we wanted a more general picture of what was going on in Bahrain, bearing in mind that all throughout China, all the talk was about whether the race – in Bahrain would go ahead or not.” Parkes was adamant that the criticism levelled at the group of journalists that he was a part of, of going to find trouble to report on, was simply not true at all. He responded: “The stuff was there if you wanted to go and view it because on the Foreign Office website they detailed specifically times and dates when certain events were taking place.” He went on to strongly defend his ethical decision to cover the political side of the Grand Prix, saying: “The bottom line is, I’m a journalist at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what the story is. Just because I’m a Formula One journalist, which is my main occupation, that doesn’t mean that I’m not going to go and report on some of the stories that happen.” In Parkes’ case he didn’t even seem to need a consideration in terms of what would be ethically right or wrong. He believed that as a journalist what was happening in the background of the Grand Prix needed to be reported on, regardless of if it was a part of his job description or not.
Parkes was also very honest in his comments about those who criticised him for his decision to cover the political side of the Bahrain Grand Prix. He said: “Other people who strictly cover Formula One and that’s all they cover, then they were right to do what they wanted to. They just wanted to be there to cover the motor race, and that’s fair enough, I’ve got no qualms about them doing that.” However, he added: “Similarly they should not have criticised me or my other journalist colleagues for going into Bahrain early to see what life was like on that particular island.”
Adam Cooper, a very well respected freelance F1 journalist was one member of the F1 press who openly expressed his support of Kevin Eason, Ian Parkes and Tom Cary’s work. He said: “Most if not all have had to deal with critics who say they should stick to their day jobs, but the story of what’s been happening in Bahrain is so intertwined with the F1 race, it is impossible to ignore. Some might contest the comparison, but there are echoes of Munich 1972 in that reporters who came to cover a sporting event have found themselves writing about something far from their usual experience, and done it with skill and fine judgement.”
Mike Seymour, Chief Editor of GPUpdate.net, was less complimentary about Eason, Parkes and Cary. While he agreed that the human side of what was occurring in Bahrain had to be covered, he did not feel that it was the responsibility of those journalists who had gone to Bahrain to cover the Grand Prix. He said: “I think that is where the issue is. You have websites solely covering the racing and other outlets who branch into the political side of the story, such as human rights. This was obviously an important aspect of the Bahrain Grand Prix and I can understand why certain journalists covered it so extensively, but there’s a merge, a fine line so to speak and I think if you’re covering Formula One you should stick to Formula One. However, there is money to be made out of headlines.”
Nick van der Voort, a Dutch Formula One fan shared his views on the way that the Bahrain Grand Prix had been covered by the F1 press, he said: “The F1 journalists filled a void and filling that void was relevant for the F1 world.” His short statement obviously cannot be taken as evidence that every fan was happy with the way that the race was reported, but it does however give an interesting insight into what some fans perhaps want most from F1 journalists, and in this case it was the most relevant information at that time. If F1 journalists can provide that for fans, then they are certainly doing something right, regardless if there were divisions between themselves.
Ultimately, what can be made of the way the F1 press covered the Bahrain Grand Prix in 2012? Praise is certainly due to both sides of the press, for those working for the motorsport magazines and websites who covered the Grand Prix at the track and equally to those who, despite criticism from their colleagues went out to cover the human story of Bahrain. Ethically, are sports journalists qualified to cover politicised events? Judging by their coverage of this year’s Grand Prix, then yes they certainly are capable. However, what is deeply frustrating is that the human rights abuses are to this day still continuing in Bahrain and F1 will, unless for any major change in the situation in the country, return next April, and it is highly likely that there will be a re-run of the events of April 2012.