I'm an F1 fan but I can't watch the Bahrain Grand Prix

The race will put a veneer of respectability on a despicable regime.

Formula One’s decision to go to Bahrain this weekend is a massive mistake. It’s not about the safety of the event itself, or the competitors, though that is a concern; it’s about legitimising a regime that has committed appalling crimes against its own people by holding a three-day carnival of glamour and speed.

The whole thing must jar with everyone involved, to be thinking about petrol bombs rather than petrol heads, to just hope that an event ends safely and with as little harm as possible instead of enjoying the spectacle. And for what? What will F1 have achieved by going to Bahrain in the first place? It’s a big shiny thumbs-up, a stamp of approval from the world sporting community and television audience, to a kingdom whose recent record on human rights is atrocious.

Is it really worth it? Bernie Ecclestone, the tiny grey figurehead of Formula One, thinks it is. While he casts doubts about races elsewhere in the world, he has been determined, it would seem, to press ahead with the sporting circus in Bahrain, despite last year’s event having been called off due to security fears. There is talk of "civil unrest" but this is more than a few protesters. This is a reaction to torture on a widespread scale, and it is being glossed over with a glamorous sporting event. Look at the shiny cars! Don’t look at the teargas and the batons!

I say this as an F1 fan. I’ve watched the sport for years, and loved its twists and turns. Sure, it’s elitist, it’s a massive waste of money, it’s a ridiculous pantomime at times, it can be horrifically tedious and boring at others; it’s environmentally atrocious, yes, I concede all of that – but for me and many others it’s one of the finest sporting spectacles in the world. I was lucky enough to see Senna, Prost and Mansell up close in their pomp back in the 1980s, and from then on I was hooked.

But I cannot bring myself to watch this weekend’s event. This weekend is not about sport; it’s about a huge bundle of cash being handed over in return for putting a veneer of respectability on a despicable regime. Deep down, the drivers, sponsors, teams and journalists must know that something isn’t right. How can you enjoy the thrill of the contest itself when you know that’s going on at the same time?

This whole shabby episode brings to mind those shameful cricket and rugby tours of apartheid South Africa during the 1980s. Sure, a lot of people are going to make a lot of money this weekend – some with a heavy heart, others just doing their jobs and trying to block out what’s going on in the background. But deep down the drivers, sponsors, teams and journalists must know that something isn’t right here. Something is deeply wrong, and by agreeing to participate, by saying that they will be there, they are letting it happen, and letting it continue.

By Sunday night, all will have been forgotten. The celebration rosewater will have be sprayed on the podium, and the fastest cars of the whole weekend will be the taxis back to the airport to get everyone the hell out of there as soon as possible.

Hopefully, Bahrain will not disappear from the headlines, and if nothing else this weekend, the only positive to take will be that more people than before knew about the human rights abuses going on there. That will be some semblance of a success to take from this grubby, grubby mess.

Bahraini children hold up pictures of tortured democracy activists. Photograph: Getty Images.
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Getty
Show Hide image

A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.