Motorsport Thoughts

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

No Agenda

I've been meaning to write this article for some time, but the recent spate of activity in the media about F1 has finally provoked me into it. The topic of today's article is media reporting on motorsport, although it has massive relevance in all fields outside that.

The modern world in which we live is dominated by information – it's everywhere in all forms of varying accuracy, quality and opinion. We can't get away from it – it's on our mobile phones, emailed to us, posted on our Facebook walls and handed to us in the street and on the bus and train. It's the same with music, film and media besides news – in my gran's house there's a small selection of books and records, but I have a massive pile of CDs and DVDs plus a computer full of information. Having access to so much 'stuff' is good in a way – because we've got so many options of things to do – but we're definitely seeing the downside in the 21st century.

The devolution of media from a few specialised outlets to anyone (obviously including, by posting this article, myself) has made the competition for an audience fierce, and since we live in a world where we all need to make money to survive and possibly prosper then media outlets need to attract viewers and make money out of what they're doing. It seems that the best way to do this is 'sexing up' your reports, as we see every day from stories full of hyperbole. If you read the Daily Mail, you probably get up every day thinking that the world's about to end.

There is certainly a much wider debate to be had about what the point is of pushing a certain opinion is in many cases in the media at large - indeed it's probably the most important debate in the developed world in the modern age - , but for the purposes of keeping this article below ten thousand words I'll just be concentrating on the world of motor racing.

Formula One has, in the last few days as I write, been rocked by the scandal of Max Mosley being involved in an allegedly Nazi-themed prostitution orgy. From Mosley's response to this, the only part that is denied is the Nazi element to the story. The story was broken by The News Of The World and the other paper which has produced the most coverage of the story is The Times – both papers are owned by Rupert Murdoch's group. It seems fairly likely that Mosley will be forced to step down from his FIA Presidency as a result of the story.

To say “fair enough” to the likely outcome is a no-brainer, but if as suggested the Murdoch group did go out to catch Mosley at this kind of thing, then the question 'why?' has to be asked. The FIA is a large non-profit organisation representing not just motor sport but motorists all over the world – it has a legitimate job to do besides anything to do with F1 and any of the other motor racing championships. In fact it's more of a committee of over two-hundred national motoring organisations with Max Mosley as the figurehead. Whoever's the figurehead in an organisation with clearly defined objectives will do a lot of delegation – Max only has the same number of hours in his week as you or me, of course. Whatever your thoughts on Max Mosley are, the bigger question that remains unanswered is 'why would a news group want to remove him from his position?' The trivial answer is 'to make money out of a story' and if that's the reason behind then it's a very worrying indictment of how public figures have simply become a pawn for the media to make money from.

Some observe that reality TV and reports of celebrities cracking up serve to show us everyone's imperfections and in a way make us feel more placated about our own, but there seems no logical reason for that within motor racing and indeed any sport.

Is there really much money to be had when the outcome of a sporting event is changed in whatever way after the event? Every time an athlete or Tour de France cyclist is caught taking drugs, it is a victory for the fight against cheats but nullifies the spectacle of the event – which is what the public were supposed to watching on the TV or at the venue. The most famous Olympic event since 1936 was the Seoul 100m men's sprint, won by Ben Johnson who was a drug cheat and the memory of Johnson winning the race is more than that of Carl Lewis finishing second who was subsequently awarded the gold but the sporting value of that memory is now zero. Competitions only become popular if people enjoy witnessing them at a base level, surely? You wouldn't care about the outcome of a competition in something that wasn't exciting to watch. People get worked up about the results of football or racing or cricket or anything if they enjoy the action – there wouldn't be any point or passion otherwise. The thrill of watching an athletics race on TV should be pretty much the same thrill as watching a friend race in one or thinking back to a school competition.

Motor racing should probably make another appearance here. In the 2007 Formula One season we had the most media-dominated season ever, by a long way. Opinion, rumour and hyperbole are nothing new in F1 – in fact they're often used benignly to mask the lack of anything interesting on-track – but 2007 saw the Spygate scandal and a similar action against the Renault team. These actions saw a lot of money thrown about and nothing but detrimental effects on the racing, and the viewer's perception of the outcome of races being fair was thrown into question. Ironically enough, many of the thoughts on the handling of the cases came back to the aforementioned Mr Mosley, although of course as one man he was not solely responsible for the outcome.

I guess the point I'm trying to make is about perception and 'feel' when you're watching a sporting event – it has to be believable to be worth bothering with. If you see a horror film and the scene is disrupted by a backdrop falling down, the atmosphere is ruined and it's hard to take it seriously. If you listen to an album supposedly full of intense emotion and then the singer rhymes 'ghost' with 'toast', you burst out laughing. Motor racing works in the same way but you can only feel anything if you believe what's happening. Journalists who want to throw everything into doubt are completely undermining the things they're supposed to be promoting. Of course it's up to a governing body to make the competition fair and in the correct spirit, but they should be doing that behind closed doors. Public image needs to be reclaimed in the information era in far too many cases.

Opinion and agenda are two very different things and it's paramount that people who make themselves heard are of benign intent. It's absolutely fine to say that there should be more support given to backing Brits or Aussies in motorbike racing or deservedly praise someone who's done well like Lewis Hamilton or Troy Bayliss, as it's a fair opinion or benign agenda. It's quite another to push a malignant agenda without reasonably justification in the world of soundbite journalism where the headline is more important than the facts, and that's where so many people in this world go wrong.

Malignant intent simply leads to a departure from reality in many cases, and can foster an unreasonable lack of respect for the people involved. There are some figures within Formula 1 at present who are extremely unpopular mainly due to media hyperbole from various sections of the press, and without good reason. If one of them had been involved in the terrible tragedy that befell David Leslie, Richard Lloyd and their crew, the people who've been involved in this irrational hatred would surely hang their heads in shame at the way they've been behaving and rightfully so. A look at the bigger picture and a fair show of respect never go amiss.

We need governing bodies who get on with doing a good and fair job quietly – FGSport (who run World Superbikes) are fantastic in this respect. Transparency is fine and the truth is vital but airing things in public should be an absolute last resort in sporting matters – public image should come first. We need journalists who report the truth, and interesting and fair opinions. If we can keep or have that, we're in the right place.


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