F1 and the art of news management

In this day and age, media manipulation – one can call it “news management” if you wish – is an art form. And like modern art it comes in many different forms, some brilliant and some charlatan. The mainstream, old-fashioned media (people with salaries) consists of the older generation clinging on to their jobs as best they can, and the younger ambitious and hungry generation who will work for less and cut more corners to make their names. It is a tough game, particularly in a world where the spin-doctors have been able to build empires by teaching people how to manipulate the system.

It is fairly simple to get any message you want out to the general public. You need one pet journalist to write a story in a newspaper or on a website and then the bottom-feeders of the Internet pick up the story and run it as fact without even going through the motions of checking whether there is any reality to it. In most cases they cannot check because they have no access to the people in the sport.

The newspapers, even the ones that we think we can trust, are easily manipulated because all the deskmen want is a headline. Their job is to sell newspapers not to agonise over whether there is substance to a story, or whether the journalist has been deliberately nobbled. A story is a story whether it is right or wrong and there is an unquenchable thirst for news, news, news. Even the old heavies of Fleet Street have dumbed down their content to meet the demands of the market. It is at this level that modern journalism is failing because it is hard to look for stories and so much easier to take the leaks that come one’s way or soup-up available press releases and quotes. If you work for a big national newspaper you cannot afford to ignore a phone call from someone in the news who wants to spin you a line. Access is key and those who understand this see that they can manipulate the media by withdrawing access. In other cases, people who are in the news cleverly draw in such journalists and give them a drip feed of information which creates a dependency which the writer fears will end if they are critical of the source. Thus the journalist becomes a propaganda tool and has to report what he is told.

The greatest skill of all media manipulation, however, is in shaping the way in which the story is delivered. Clever media manipulators know that if you want to bury bad news, you put out a statement on a Friday evening, or at the same moment as a huge story has broken. There can also be diversions that lead the pack in the wrong direction and take their attention away from the real issue. And there are gentle intimations of things that might happen which reduce the impact of the news when they do eventually happen. News is like air coming from a tyre: it can leak quietly and slowly as the result of a slow puncture, or it can make a big bang with a dramatic delamination.

Headlines are rarely made by slow punctures…

Thus I look at the suggestion that Bernie Ecclestone is considering handing over control of the Formula One group because he is spending too much time on his own legal matters as a pretty significant story.

The last thing that Ecclestone wants is to give up doing what he does. It is not about the money. It is about the fun and without F1, Bernie’s fun will be much reduced. For me this smacks of media management with the goal being to introduce the idea that there could be a succession coming, without making it into huge headlines. “I might do this” and “I might do that” are a lot less likely to create front page news as “Ecclestone pushed out” or “Bernie quits”. Nonetheless I get the feeling that things are moving gradually in that direction and while Bernie is still banging on about Christian Horner (presumably as he would be a Medvedev to Bernie’s Putin) CVC Capital Partners seem to be keeping its cards close to its chest. Out in the shadows lurks the soon-to-be ex-Sainsbury’s boss Justin King. A few other names have been thrown around but King has announced he is leaving his current job, which is fair indication that he has other plans.

60 thoughts on “F1 and the art of news management

  1. King went on record to the BBC saying ‘he doesn’t think there’s a job in F1 for him’.

    Do we read that as misdirection and he’s taking the job, or that someone else may have pipped him to the post?

  2. my thoughts as well, when I’ve read the “legal disctracting from the job” line, that’s effectively saying: “I’ll retire very soon”.

  3. Spot on I think! One has to say that it is about time Bernie took the unpalatable step of standing down, especially after the recent High Court ruling and associated comments.

    My own feeling, is that Bernie, by clinging to the wreckage, is rather coming across as a dithering old 83 year old and that’s sad. He’s done one hell of a lot for F1, especially when the teams are prattling about like kids and not for one moment looking at the future of the sport/business.

    1. Bernie gives the appearance of dithering as a tactic designed to lead opponents into underestimating him.

  4. Well it’s nice to know that cynical me …. is endorsed by yourself as my thinking is about right….. also I presume CVC may actually want some sort of succession in place “Just in case” Bernie doesn’t actually get off in Germany.

  5. Talk of Horner being capable of handling the powerful corporate interest’s of F1 are fanciful, we know how he handled the Weber/Vettel confrontation, any self respecting team manager would have walked after the complete disregard for his authority was on show for all to see.

      1. Absolutely unsuitable for that job. The only reason he’s being touted because Bernie thinks he will be able to control him. F1 needs someone with a backbone of their own. I think we will really miss FOTA. As you mentioned Joe, there was so much potential for that organization to do so much good. The Fans Forum was a prime example.

    1. But if this talk is coming from Ecclestone, it may be just another of the diversions Joe refers to. What Bernie says often reveals very little; why he says it is a lot more informative, but harder to figure out.

    2. Contrast with Bernie’s man management style when in charge of Brabham; I remember a story about BE (all 5’2″ of him) physically dragging Derek Warwick out of his car to give it to Riccardo Patrese. Austria ’86 I think?

  6. Well I hadn’t seen any article on this matter, although it’s fair to say that not many papers actually write anything much about motorsport these days, unlike in the past. It would appear, on a strictly legal basis, that Bernie isn’t in control of the sport of F1 anyway, and so I guess it would be easier now for CVC to dump him. If I may digress for a moment, I think F1 owes a lot to Bernie, in getting it to be a professional sport, but equally he has done great harm to the sport over the years, particularly in alienating the core followers, and helping to dumb down the sport, so that it is not either as interesting as it was, nor are there the open drivers that there were. In that respect I mean that in days gone past the drivers had opinions, but these have been homogenized so that they just as well not speak at all. Senna or Mansell wouldn’t fit these days for sure, and Kimi is the only character left who doesn’t get the concept of SPIN!

    It is well past time Bernie hung up his Pit Pass in my view. However, I cannot see anyone being able to run things as Bernie has, so the series is in a fix I would think, as if it is run by faceless CVC it won’t keep pace as Bernie was able to, and I can’t see a Corporate Suit working either. In fact, the only person I could see being able to fit BCE’s shoes is Niki Lauda, a businessman, racer, shrewd, calculating, perfectionist, wheeler dealer, ruthless, pragmatic, entertaining, and no discernible baggage, as well as being a clever, straightforward person with access to the sort of areas Bernie excelled in harvesting. If I were CVC I’d be on the phone to Herr Lauda…..

      1. Well he is 65 or so, I guess he could handle 10 years, and these might be a vital 10 years in getting the SPORT back into F1, and getting the fans involved again, rather than just the fatcat sponsors.

    1. Maybe Bernie will hand over control to someone selected by the teams…

      Sorry, I needed a laugh.

  7. That is about the best summation of the state of the news media in our time as I have read. It is so true and very disturbing. Finding a source of information about what is going on in the world that you can trust is difficult at best. At least I have this blog which keeps me well informed about the F1 world despite the best efforts of some “trolls” to drag it into the muck from time to time.

  8. I believe that he is looking to first and foremost distract the london based media – hence the london grand prix story again last week. It was obvious then that there was a BCE story looming.

    Bernie I am positive (as you seem to be Joe) is setting the scene and letting everyone know what ‘could’ be happening soon. My feeling is that there will be an official split between CVC and BCE until such time as he has finished his trial in germany and is more than likely let off with some sort of fine and suspended sentance. At this juncture, BCE will be bought back into the fold in a sort of handover role for someone like King.

    My own personal opinion is that King is a great leader of a public company and great driver in value for a company therefore that has shareholders. I don’t believe however having met him a few times at tracks that he has the nouse to lead in the cut and thrust world of deal makers and wheeler dealers of the F1 world. If you like, he (should he be chosen) will be the David Moyes equivalent.

    Let’s not forget FOM / Allsport has recently had corporate folk working there – David Campbell and how did that work out? The commercial F1 community at every level I know of thought him a joke.

    F1 is certainly ready to become a corporate giant, but the first person to take on that role post BCE will be taking on a poisoned chalice.

    1. Ha Ha….love the David Moyes/Justin King analogy. Yes, they’re both talented people just as long as they’re in the right environment. Put them in the ‘super league’ and……well……Everton was one thing but Man Utd something entirely different; a massive step up. Ditto Sainsburys/F1…..

    2. Joe I know its off topic but I wondered if you have ever come across an F1 travel company called Discover Grand Prix. I’m considering using them but want to check out their reputation first.

    1. those sites being the type to use headlines like “Red Bull boss Slams McLaren” as an introduction to a quote saying “I don’t think their complaint was very fair”. I make up the example but you know what I mean. Turns me right off.

  9. Mr. Justice Newey, of the High Court, made a Finding: Ecclestone paid Gribkowsky (at the time an employee of a German State-owned bank) a bribe. This is a matter of Fact, not a legal opinion subject to Appeal. The German prosecutor may request the Clerk of the High Court to file a copy of the record of the High Court proceedings with the Bavarian Court, and this Finding becomes a fact as if the Germans had proven it themselves (the so-called estoppel doctrine).

    Now this causes problems for CVC since under the laws of Singapore, any company that “goes public” becomes a Singapore “legal person” subject to its laws, including the Prevention of Corruption Act, section 37 which covers the bribery of officials outside Singapore. This law is under the direct control of the Prime Minister. Do you suppose he could/would overlook this?

    CVC not only has to find an exit strategy for the investors in its funds, but also on behalf of the PEGs it syndicated its F1 holdings with, and Ecclestone has no say in these matters whatsover. In short, CVC cannot list F1 in Singapore as planned with Ecclestone involved and the clock is approaching high noon.

    If you relied on Ecclestone’s favorite stenographers you’d be led to believe the delay in listing F1 was solely due to “…the Eurozone crisis”.

  10. Is Flavio B appearing in any Daily Mail beach pictorials, frolicking in Abu Dhabi with his photofantastic wife? Are you monitoring this angle, Joe?

    1. No. CVC Capital Partners are funded by US pension funds and the like. people who live in white weatherboard houses with white fences and fly the Stars and Stripes on their immaculate lawns. I do not see Flavio being the kind of guy that they would like to invest in…

      1. First of all, Hahahhaha!!!! One of the most colorful characters in F1! I would love to hear some of the Flavio stories. It would probably take volumes.

        1. That is one description for him. There are plenty of others, some of them are not very flattering.

  11. If he were not 83, one might well dismiss this all as misdirection, (indeed that may still be the case) however he used the “I’m very old and I don’t remember” defence, in the recent Constantin Medien case and it didn’t impress the judge one bit. In fact if one reads Bernie’s biographies you will find many instances of Bernie not remembering details of deals. It may actually have become an unconscious automatic defence mechanism.

    While I keep track of things by using lists and planners, a hard ingrained habit from my working days; I am bemused at being able to enjoy again books I have not read for several years, whereas in my younger days the whole plot leapt out at me in the first line of the first page. For Bernie to confess or claim this publicly is to render himself unsuitable, past it. Not sure for how many seconds I could believe that.

    There is in any case a long list of those claiming to have either control or a veto over Bernie’s successor, though most of these would melt away if Bernie himself appointed someone like Christian or Martin W.

    Bernie is talking of training someone and reducing his workload and I cant see Martin as his apprentice, Christian possibly. This is very different from taking over after Bernie has gone, working with him is not something that has happened before. Those that thought they were working with him soon found out that they were being left in the dust.

    1. When I asked Bernie many years ago if he was training a successor, he said “Nah, that only causes trouble…” I think he would prefer to stay in full control with no one breathing down his neck until the moment he quits. I would think it is more likely that it is CVC and the quite prestigious members of the F1 Board, Sir Martin Sorrell etc, would would be choosing the successor.

      1. Any good dictator knows that training a successor means training a usurper.

        Some leaders thrive in building an empire that will last well past their tenure. Not Bernie. If his creation burns to the ground the moment he’s gone, all the better to prove how indispensable he’d been. If he’s still around, he might even provide the kindling.

        Were CVC to dare push Bernie out, one wonders if they’d be able to douse the flames.

  12. Excellent post Joe,

    Out of interest do you believe Bernie is still the right man for the job?

      1. Joe,
        You are not uncritical of the state of F1. Do you evaluate Ecclestone’s job performance on his ability to reach goals that he has set for himself and his investors, or does it require a broader view of the state of the sport to put him in context? If it is the latter, could he still be seen as having done a terrific job?

        1. He has done a good job for his investors. I am critical because he puts them ahead of the sport sometimes

  13. Loved this post Joe. Not only does it hint at the changes that are likely to come but also remind people (or the few that still seem to need reminding) that you can’t trust all that you read in the media. (Do people STILL need reminding of this, bearing in mind it’s hardly a new concept?). Certainly can’t discount Justin King at this stage. After listening to him on a regular basis on R4 Today business news for the past few years, he’s the master ‘wordsmith’ and slides around effortlessly and seamlessly in conversation, in much the same way that a top class concert pianist would musically, during a recital.

  14. World Exclusive:
    How I Overcame My Media Manipulation Hell

    Joe, I am happy to meet with you at a discreet London Hotel to divulge my secret plan to ignore press, TV news, online news, advertising.
    How about a late morning full english breakfast?

      1. Too easy for them to slip you a mickey and cart you up to a room, to take some staged incriminating photos? 😆

  15. Joe, its been muted before, but do you believe Ross Brawn may play a part in some way post Bernie ?

  16. The public has a short memory. This many years after Crashgate, is Flavio really out of the running? I’ve heard it said that Bernie’s a candidate for sainthood compared to him, but I’ve also read of Flavio’s seemingly eminent business talent inside and outside motorsport. He also has a bit of the glam factor going for him, he’s decidedly not a suit. Another name I put forth not long ago, drawing scoffs, is Eddie Irvine. He seems quite the business wheeler-dealer, and has a showy image too. Are the contemplated shoes way too big for him?

  17. A very thoughtful opinion piece today Joe. However, I think you’re leaving out an important point. Whilst mainstream news is getting lazier, we the public have never had it better due to the ability to source our news from other sources. Its just harder to find the right ones. Wind back the clock and you could only get F1 news from a handful of places, often delayed. Yet now, we have blogs such as this where we can get a first hand diagnosis of the sport. The “great unwashed” of F1 may not read your blog, but those who really care about the sport do.

  18. Bernie is (or was until recently) responsible for arranging races at all of F1’s racetracks, all the of F1’s television deals, all the deals with the teams, all of F1’s logistics and travel arrangements, all trackside advertising and a whole host of other things. Nobody on the planet has the CV, experience, knowledge or credentials to replace him. CVC’s only logical strategy is to introduce a management team that will split up Bernie’s various responsibilities. Some F1 folk, some not. Whitmarsh would probably be excellent in Logistics and making deals with the teams, King could be a commercial guy, maximising revenue streams into the sport etc and so on, until all of Bernie’s old responsibilities are filled by a hand picked panel of experts. The various F1 businesses that currently coexist will be brought under one umbrella and the sport will be in a position to float on the stock market.

      1. There is no sense in owning more of a business than is absolutely necessary to keep control of the decisions. Owning even 1% too much just gauruntees a small revenue as dividend unless you are siphoning off huge profits. For an investment firm, Floating the sport so you can sell say 6% of shares to the highest bidder possible(which an open exchange should find!) would generate significant initial revenue to pay back to your investors in your various funds. Successful funds attract more investors and this is CVC’s business model. You can still retain your ownership of the sport and it’s key decisions, and a significant portion of the pie, in the long term you maybe lose a piece of the dividend, but overall that small loss is overcome by increased number of investors in your wider business because you have generated significant cash flow in one year to please many people. Plus if you keep supply low in the shares, the business makes good dividend it will increase the overall value of your portfolios, again increasing investor confidence.

        At least that’s how I think it works!!!

  19. thank you for your piece Joe.
    it is worth noting however that each one of us using this type of virtual communications platform is being harvested and by default is a willing tool no matter what.
    my intentions in contributing and supporting your brand have serious consequences when your blog is used by yours truly as a reference.
    kudos to you and remember that there is a Me in T-E-A-M.
    take courage and enjoy this year’s show monsieur Saward.

    1. I am not a willing tool. I do have a choice but I am trying to make a living and that is not easy, given the costs involved.

  20. I know this is not going to happen however, although he seems to have been forgotten and is no doubt engaged in other areas since he stepped down as CEO of Tescos, Sir Terry Leahy always struck me as having a much ‘harder edge’ than King; just the sort of leadership style that would be required for an F1 environment. On a lighter note, perhaps Christian Horner might have the qualities to step into King’s shoes at Sainsburys?

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