In the modern world, newspapers exist to be sold. They do not exist to tell the truth, which was once their job. As a result of this the media in the Western world has largely sold its status as “the fourth estate”, one of the checks and balances of society. People still read the papers (albeit in ever fewer numbers) but only for a few minutes a day. In various European countries these days there is a newspaper called 20 Minutes, which is designed to give people a lightweight version of the news during their commute, which lasts an average of 20 minutes. One can read the entire paper in that time. Trying to explain complex political situations in a bullet point is impossible and so the reports analyse nothing: they report that there has been a fire on the streets, but not why that fire might have happened.
For the last 12 months there has been almost nothing in the newspapers about Bahrain. By all accounts, some progress has been made in Manama to move forward the reconciliation process. The opposition (whatever that phrase means) has returned to the negotiating table, the economy has improved a little, but most Bahrainis still want more progress. They want their businesses to flourish, they want the country to finish its big infrastructure projects and return to being the glitzy kind of place the kingdom has always wanted to be. At the same time, there is no question that a lot of people want more say in what goes on. They want more democracy. The government (like the opposition) is not one solid grouping, but rather a rainbow of views from the hard liners, who see Iran under every bed, to the more liberal folk, who understand that compromise is necessary. The problem is that all too often in the Middle East, the call for democracy is little more than a means by which those with more extreme views try to gain a foothold in power.
When there is a properly organised protest march in Bahrain, with all the right permissions having been granted, the crowds tend to be bigger and the marching peaceful. At the end of the day, however, when most have gone home, teenagers start to cause trouble, there are things thrown at the police, cars set on fire and so on. The goal is to get a reaction from the police, so that reports can read “tear gas” and “rubber bullets”. The reports never seem to make the point that the main march was non-violent. Most people in Bahrain do not want violence.
The Bahrain government believes that most of this violent activity is incited by Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia, who are seeking to destabilise and ultimately overthrow the government, not in pursuit of freedom and democracy, but rather for geopolitical and religious reasons. Such undercover folk are really no different to Britain’s Special Operations Executive in World War II which Winston Churchill told “set Europe ablaze”. They were deemed to be heroes and in the world of the Hezbollah, those doing this job in countries across the world are no doubt viewed in the same light today.
The government of Bahrain recently sent a report to the United Nations, arguing that there are concerted attempts by Hezbollah to stir up trouble. There is evidence to back up these claims, notably the recent arrest in Bahrain of a cell of eight “terrorists” who were trained in weapons and explosives in the Lebanon. They were exposed by a tip-off to Bahrain from Kuwait. Assuredly, there are others cells that have yet to be busted, as the so-called “bombs” in recent days indicate.
Teenagers without training do not make bombs.
The thing that most of the discussions about Bahrain miss is that there is a big picture, influencing all activities on the streets. Bahrain is strategically important. Not only does the US Fifth Fleet, which is headquartered there, deal with some of the goings-on in Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen, it also patrols the Gulf, to make sure that the oil tankers of the world can come and go. Forty percent of the world’s oil supplies pass through the Strait of Hormuz, at the bottom end of the Gulf, on their way to the United States, Japan, China, and Western Europe. If Iran had control of Bahrain, the world’s oil supplies could (in theory) be strangled. Bahrain is just 125 miles across the water from the Iranian coastline. In consequence, the Bahrain US naval base is the home not only of the Fifth Fleet, but also to 4,400 other service men and women, from 80 different military commands. More than $250 million has been spent on the facility in the last few years. What else is there inside this 60-acre site? It would be a surprise if there were not stations for the major information gathering services, wouldn’t it? Clearly, it is a place that Iran would like to destabilise. And a place that the Western nations want to hold on to. The odd opposition politician in London might bang on about human rights, but you can bet that the moment they get into power, they will play these things down because they will understand why Bahrain is important.
The Grand Prix – which is Bahrain’s biggest annual international event – is clearly a great opportunity for both sides to put their points across. The government wants to send out the message that all is well; the opposition wants the world to think that all is not well. The opposition are winning this battle, helped by a media who exaggerate away merrily, telling the world that Bahrain is in flames. Not surprisingly, the Bahraini government is unhappy with this kind of coverage while the opposition is only too keen to welcome anyone who will help them sabotage the peace process. It is a thorny situation, not helped by editors who sit in London and other places demanding sensational coverage from their reporters, even if there are no sensational events going on.
Bernie Ecclestone and Jean Todt, the men who make the decisions about F1 being in Bahrain, do not want to be involved in Bahraini politics. They don’t want to have to deal with the perceptions that exist that F1 is somehow supporting the government and condoning the violence. This is why Ecclestone has now started talking about having talked with both sides. As always Mr E is looking after Number One first. Todt argues that he has to deal with realities rather than perceptions, and in his opinion – based on what is happening on the ground – there was no reason not to race in Bahrain.
In the modern media, however, perception is reality, no matter what is really happening, and it is the perceptions that must be changed. But how can one do that when the visiting media who go to report the F1 are told to go out and find the trouble, providing the opposition with the perfect opportunity to provide some?