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International Women’s Day

Suspending Christian Horner’s accuser is the worst form of victim blaming

The ‘leaked WhatsApps’ and other unsavoury allegations that have rocked Formula 1 remain unproven, writes Gemma Abbott – but one thing is clear: Red Bull’s response is a PR disaster

Friday 08 March 2024 15:08 GMT
Christian Horner will get to keep his ridiculously well-paid job, and the power and respect that comes with it
Christian Horner will get to keep his ridiculously well-paid job, and the power and respect that comes with it (Getty Images)

It’s International Women’s Day! And if we all shout loud enough, maybe the men in charge at Red Bull will hear us.

Although, even if they do, it won’t make an ounce of difference to the female employee who’s just been suspended by the F1 racing team for reportedly being “dishonest” when giving evidence against team principal Christian Horner.

Her days are clearly numbered. His aren’t.

To be honest, I don’t know why it’s taken them so long. Of course they were going to suspend her. Of course they were going to try to silence her. Of course they will probably try to pay her off now. Of course the clever lawyers at Red Bull will insert a clause into her severance agreement that ensures she never, ever talks to the media about all this. Of course.

Meanwhile, lucky old Christian Horner will get to keep his well-paid job, and the power and respect that comes with it. And this weekend we’ll watch him confidently stride out into the paddock at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix (don’t get me started on the additional layer of irony there), while the woman who accused him of “inappropriate behaviour” we can only assume will be sat at home sobbing into her Coco Pops, wondering how things went so wrong.

Horner told a press conference yesterday that the media spotlight falling on him for the last couple of weeks has made it a “very trying period” and “when there’s children involved, parents, families, it’s not pretty”. Probably should have thought about those consequences a few months ago, Christian.

It seems beyond ironic that Horner’s wife – Geri Halliwell – former Spice Girl and co-creator of the “girl power” movement back in the nineties should be dragged into a scandal like this. So well-known is Halliwell for her work supporting women, she even has an honorary doctorate from Sheffield Hallam University in recognition of her work championing women’s rights.

Heartbroken and hurt, I’m sure. But were she not personally involved in the situation, I do wonder if this is really what Geri would want.

From a PR point of view, this all looks bloody terrible. But these situations – at this stage – are totally driven by lawyers. I can only imagine the Red Bull head of comms, on hearing from lawyers about the suspension of the female employee, desperately trying to work out how on earth Red Bull can put a spin on it so it doesn’t look… well, like it looks. Man wins, woman loses. No amount of PR polish can flip this one, can it?

So what indeed was the intended outcome of this woman’s suspension? I can see how continuing to work together would have become an impossible and untenable situation for Horner and his accuser. But surely there are other, more feasible options? Moving her to work for another part of the business, for example? Suggesting she takes annual leave? I’m no employment lawyer, but a suspension feels extreme.

Surely suspending her from her work should be the absolute last resort? And frankly, Red Bull, it smacks of the very worst kind of victim-blaming – a back-handed and very public move that makes it look like she is the one entirely in the wrong and Horner is the one with zero formal repercussions.

To put the next few weeks and years of this woman’s life into stark perspective, need I remind anyone of a similarly public and infamous example of victim-blaming? One in which the woman accuser was outcast and castigated by the media for many years after, whilst the man at the centre of the scandal – a certain President Bill Clinton – maintained his position as the leader of the free world after vehemently denying having “sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky”.

In fact, if Christian Horner is looking for light at the end of the tunnel, then he should look no further than Clinton’s career since then. In particular, a Gallup poll conducted not long after the event which found record-high approval of how he handled his job as president.

Meanwhile, Monica Lewinsky later described herself as the “patient zero” of online shaming in her 2015 TED talk . Lewinsky was a 22-year-old intern in 1998. What happened between her and the then-most powerful man in the world saw him impeached, but able to keep his career and reputation as an esteemed philanthropist, whilst Lewinsky was held up as an object of public ridicule for the next 20 years. The saga was even humiliatingly named after her – the “Lewinsky scandal”.

Attitudes have moved on in recent years but, as this sorry situation at Red Bull appears to suggest that some people didn’t get the memo.

So on this IWD 2024, maybe what we should all be shouting in chorus at Red Bull bosses is: have you learned nothing?

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