Archie Bland: Why won't Bernie Ecclestone lead by example in Bahrain?

Our Deputy Editor on why doing nothing is a form of complicity

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The Independent Online

Let's say Bernie Ecclestone and a Bahraini official are conducting a business deal. As they shake hands on their transaction, the official uses his other arm to punch a passerby in the face. Mr Ecclestone continues to shake and the deal is done. Is he complicit in the violence?

Most of us would say yes, I think. Not Mr Ecclestone, or his fellow decision-makers in Formula One. For Mr Ecclestone, that would presumably be an act of internal politics, just like the protests that are still consuming Bahrain, and hence none of his business. "We don't get involved in politics," he explained recently. "They will sort out their internal problems, I'm quite sure." Accordingly, this weekend's Grand Prix still looks set to go ahead.

What Ecclestone and Co apparently fail to appreciate is that doing nothing can be just as meaningful an act as making a fuss. In Bahrain, as in South Africa during the apartheid years, the options aren't a powerful political statement vs a position of strict neutrality; instead, the two options are equally forceful.

By pulling Formula One out of Bahrain for a second year, Mr Ecclestone and his colleagues would be sending a signal that the country is still in crisis. That's a position strongly reinforced by an Amnesty International report earlier this week. Doing nothing, by extension, makes the opposite statement.

Since last year Formula One deemed a race in Bahrain would be a bad idea, the decision to go ahead this time implies that things are getting better. Max Mosley, a former Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile president, gets it: the Bahraini authorities, he wrote in The Daily Telegraph, "hope to show the world that the troubles were just a small, temporary difficulty... By agreeing to race there, Formula One becomes complicit in what happened."

There's still time for Ecclestone to see sense. But that looks increasingly unlikely. The chairman of the circuit, for one, sounds bullish, making the remarkable suggestion that the race will "put things in perspective", a claim that suggests we'd finally realise how meaningless all the death was when we saw a few cars whizzing round his track. And there's an official version of events that sounds similarly blithe. "The eyes of the world are trained on Bahrain," it proclaims, and "... the most important sporting event witnessed by the region."

That's half-right, I suppose. We'll all be looking at Bahrain this weekend. But we won't be watching the contest. And if Bernie Ecclestone really wants to stay out of the country's politics, he'd be well-advised to remove himself and his race cars from the picture before it's too late.