As I’m posting this, the F1 race is finished in Bahrain:
The race took place despite worldwide protests, at a massive cost to the Bahrain government. In the background of the stadium, as usual, smoke rose from tires, but this time the tires did not come from the race, but from barricades all around the city. Journalists covered the race, but many of them did so from other countries or from jail. It was, all in all, a bizarre day.
So why do we care, since this is not ESPN? We care because this is a good example of a government using sports largely as a manipulation tool, and there are both good and bad lessons to take from what just happened in Bahrain. But first, some context:
Bahrain is a tiny, tiny island nation about 4 times the size of Washington DC (the city, not the state). It is just next to Saudi Arabia, and, as such, it has a lot of oil. A LOT of oil. It is also ruled by a hereditary king, which comes from a minority tribe in the country. It is, in other words, your typical small, oil-rich middle-east kingdom.
In February of last year, the Arab Spring came to Bahrain, as protesters from the majority tribe demonstrated to demand greater freedoms and more representation. At first, the protests were relatively muted, since the king in Bahrain was never particularly bad. But the king did not take well to being challenged: he ordered the army to move in, and protesters were arrested, tortured (warning, graphic), and killed. For good measure, he ordered the very monument around which the protests had begun to be torn down.
The Arab Spring of Bahrain never fulfilled its early promise – the protests were largely crushed, but of course the resentment of the masses lingered. The king ordered an ‘inquiry’, and demolished homes and any other structures associated with the protests.
Into this toxic brew came the F1 race. As a final bit of context, you should know that Bahrain is VERY proud of the fact that it can host a F1 race. Since the days of James Bond, the F1 races have been considered glamorous, world-class events, and the cities and countries that host them derive a lot of pride from being ‘chosen’ to host an F1 race. Since the Bahrain race was the only F1 race in any Arab country, the prestige was even more important.
In 2011, the unrest forced the cancellation of the F1 race, but this year the protests have been muted enough for the boss of F1, Bernie Ecclestone, to decide to hold the race there. As the race was scheduled, though, more and more calls came to cancel it, as a sign of disapproval of the brutal crackdown of the Bahrain government.
The Bahrain government made a decision that they NEEDED to host the F1 race this year, both as a sign to their people (“everything is back to normal!”) and to the world at large (“Nothing wrong here! Keep looking at Libya!”). So the country paid $60m to host the race, and began an epic campaign of PR and manipulation to allow the race to proceed. It was a by-the-book manipulation strategy that rested on 4 pillars:
1. Hire foreign ‘big gun’ PR engines. The Bahrain government hired several figures, such as the former political editor of the Sunday Times in the UK, David Cracknell, or Joe Trippi, the former campaign manager of Howard Dean, to put a ‘positive spin’ on the country of Bahrain. The PR effort cost millions, and created several email gems where those hired guns proactively emailed hundreds of their erstwhile colleagues to reassure them that a) Bahrain was perfectly peaceful, and b) if there was violence (which there wasn’t), it was the fault of the protesters, shooting into defenseless police and army units. These are also the brains behind the rebranding of protesters as “saboteurs”, for example.
2. Use the press. The Bahrain government then prepared several media-ready stories. These are stories that are artfully created to make a point and then ‘dressed up’ as news. A good example is here: this is a Business Week puff piece that reports that the F1 race “will create 3,000 temporary jobs”. In an oil-rich country, unemployment is not really an issue, and 3,000 temporary jobs wouldn’t qualify as news in any case, but the government managed to seed several of these stories throughout the press in the runup to the race.
3. Control the journalists. In the days running up to the race, the Bahrain government denied visas to dozens of journalists trying to cover the race. Several organizations saw their visa requests turned down, which is exceptional for journalists. Some others were granted visas, however… what was the logic? The government essentially banned any non-racing journalist. The journalists that were allowed in were sports writers, who could reliably be counted upon to report on the race… and nothing else. Political journalists, editors, and generalists were blocked. One of the journalists that was refused entry at the border said it best today, actually: “Govt welcomes f1 but not independent journalists who actually understand the complexity of this issue.” – Stuart Ramsay, Sky News.
When the journalists that were allowed in veered off course, they were jailed. The idea was to keep the media reporting on the race result, and nothing else.
4. Keep the protesters away. The final leg of the government’s strategy relied on keeping the protests suppressed over the weekend. The popular neighborhoods were on lockdown throughout the weekend. Race attendees were passed through TSA-like detectors. The site of previous protests were surrounded by barbed wire. A protester was shot and left on a rooftop. The daughter of one of the protesters who is on his 70th day of hunger strike in jail was arrested. The government strategy was to remove any catalyst around which protests could form, and to discourage any protests large enough to be caught on TV or by the media.
We’ll give it a weak C. The race took place today, that’s true, and that is what the government wanted most of all. But this seems a Pyrrhic victory at best. Several media outlets reported the race, and in the same breadth damned the efforts of the government with headlines like this: “But when all the smoke from the race and the week’s riots had been cleared away, it was the underdog protesters who had won the public relations contest.”
Protests took place across the island, away from the race, and protesters used the twitter handle of the government’s own spokesman to forward images like this one to waiting media, both in and out of Bahrain:
The stands, which could seat 48,000 people, were largely empty. The crowd was estimated at 20,000, and many tickets were given away. Keep in mind that this is THE premium event of the country, and tickets are usually hard to get months in advance:
So what went wrong? And what lessons can be gleaned from this?
First of all, the strategy of the government – hold the race at all costs – was probably a mistake. Even its opponents remarked on this: one activist, Alaa Shehabi, told ABC that the running of the event this year was a mistake. “They miscalculated,” she said. “They thought cancelling the race would be a defeat for them but they didn’t realize the cost of holding the race.”
Cancelling the race would probably have been a lot smarter, for many reasons. But let’s say that this was not an option, and that the race had to happen. In that light, the government did some things right – after all, the nightmare scenario was that protests would disrupt the actual race, which did not happen – but it also made several mistakes. Let’s look at just two here:
– No grand gestures. One of the best way to diffuse protests is to make a grand gesture, a sign that can be pointed to as you say “look, I have heard you – here is the change that you demand!” The government in Bahrain has tried to quell the protests with words, with little in terms of tangible gestures that could be used with protesters or the media to balance the story. In the absence of grand gestures (even token ones), the media ran the powerful narrative of “blind Arab government versus democracy protesters”, with predictable outcomes. The best manipulators use grand gestures to force the narrative to be more balanced, and in Bahrain there were many words, but few gestures.
– No alternative narrative. Calling protesters “extremists” and “saboteurs”, especially when your title is Crown Prince, is not going to work very well. One side is calling for democracy and freedom. The other is… well, not. Which side has the more compelling narrative? You can jail journalists or stop them from entering the country, but they will still write about the story – and if you can’t give them another story, the current narrative- “Arab King clashes with Democracy supporters” is a pretty good one for most Western press.
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A government can manipulate its own citizens quite effectively, if it is ruthless enough (see China or North Korea for one extreme). It is a much harder proposition to manipulate the rest of the world, especially in the fact of such a compelling event as the Arab Spring. To do so requires a lot of resources (which most governments have), but also a lot of skills in how to manipulate the media and the overall narrative. The F1 race in Bahrain shows that you can achieve your aim (hold an F1 race in your country) and yet miss the goal completely (diffuse the protests long term) when you have the resources but not the skills.