Bahrain and F1 – not this year?

It has to be said I’m a bit of a rolling news junkie. If a news editor is prepared to point a camera at a dynamic crowd for six hours, then under most circumstances I’m prepared to watch the result. So it’s fair to assume that my perception of the importance of whatever it’s pointing at could be skewed by the time I spend watching it.

Having said that, I have a pretty fundamental distaste for state authorities using military hardware against non-violent protestors. It seems to me that the best way to keep the masses happy is to keep them generally happy, rather than cracking as many heads as possible when people choose to express their unhappiness.

Today’s panicking autocrats are in Bahrain. The overwhelming traffic on Twitter, Youtube and news sites tells of police using tear gas and guns (whatever they’re loaded with) indiscriminately on unarmed demonstrators, some of whom were sleeping. It’s difficult to know where to look for “balance” in such a situation, because the immediate reports come from the demonstrators, or the government, and the external media can be slow to catch up (by slow, I mean probably 24 hours, but that’s enough for things to move on dramatically).

Fortunately, in this case, there is another way. Bahrain has made a big play to attract world class motorsport in the last decade, to the extent that it now hosts the opening round of the Formula One World Championship. The race is due to take place in less than three weeks, and in the meantime there is a three-day test session planned. This weekend, the main F1 feeder series GP2 brings its Asian subsidiary to the Sakhir circuit.

And this is what gives us a bit of the balance required. Motorsport journalist and commentator Will Buxton has been in Bahrain since yesterday, and provides this report from the circuit, having stayed in the capital Manama overnight. The best balance I can find is the suggestion that these demonstrations are nothing new, and have only received greater attention because the recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have meant that the international news networks are concentrating harder.

At first sight, this reinforces my original feeling about news junkies. But the more I think about it, the more I realise that just because we normally “look the other way”, doesn’t mean we should continue to do so during the one chance these people have for international attention. I have vaguely registered in the past, through reports on the BBC’s From Our Own Correspondent, that the majority of people in Bahrain were not benefitting from the country’s success, but perhaps only now have the circumstances been right for the news networks to amplify their grievances. To dismiss them as long-standing and unchanged is to dismiss state brutality as unimportant even when it’s taking place under your nose.

The feeling I pick up from motorsport personnel and journalists on Twitter is one of concern, first for the safety of themselves and their colleagues (which should be anyone’s first concern), but then for the convenience of the F1 circus. I wonder if this latter worry shouldn’t perhaps be replaced by a concerted representation to Bernie Ecclestone that the sport should not be seen to support regimes that treat their people with such contempt and brutality, and that the whole three-week event should be pulled now. Formula One will lose very little by starting its season in Melbourne, and nobody knows what the people of Bahrain will lose if the regime uses the arrival of Formula One’s cameras as an excuse to clear the streets to “protect their reputation”.

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