We’ve all heard the expression: ‘There’s no such thing as bad publicity’. In May, Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone laughed off the controversy over the ethics, and security risks, of holding the F1 race in Bahrain at a time of serious unrest in the country with these identical words. But is he right? Is some publicity, however negative, better than none at all when it comes to national image? Or are we faced with the loss of good opinion which, to quote Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, ‘once lost is lost forever’?
It seems the temptation proves irresistible for the leaders of some countries which are seldom in the global eye to push ahead with staging a grand event to showcase their country’s assets. Their population can bask in an orgy of nationalist sentiment and propaganda while the media will be so carried away by the spectacular organisation, or the beauty of the hostesses, or the excitement of the event itself, that they will ignore the political context and any nasty goings-on beneath the surface. They hope the mismatch between official image and reality remains hidden. Or they may simply underestimate the media’s appetite to ferret out bad news. But in what world would anyone with even a remote understanding of independent media expect a high-profile sports or cultural event to be covered purely for its own sake, particularly when the host country does its best to smother controversial stories? Credibility is an essential element in any image-building endeavour. Where it is missing, it is difficult to regain, as the US Administration have learnt the hard way.
The Bahrain authorities view the annual Formula 1 event as a way to profile their small country at the global level. But I doubt that the images this year on news channels across the world was what they had in mind: hooded protesters burning tyres in the street while police lobbed teargas canisters into the crowd. It was entirely predictable that the 2012 F1 race would offer a golden opportunity for disaffected citizens to publicise their cause in front of the world’s media and that the media would cover the story. The damage to F1’s image, if indeed there was any, may have lasted no more than a weekend, but what about Bahrain? Bahrain prides itself on a level of democracy and human rights unequalled in the Gulf, but this is not the message that the newly expanded audience for News Bahrain will have absorbed.
Now it’s the turn of Ukraine and Poland whose staging of Euro 2012 has become overshadowed by charges of an ugly racism in their society. The refusal of many European leaders to attend their teams’ matches in Ukraine in protest at the imprisonment of the political opposition leader has already exposed the weak democratic credentials of a country whose claims to aspire to a closer relationship with Europe look hollow and superficial, denting Ukraine’s image problems even further. Poland’s anxiety to prevent politics from spoil their moment of glory is disappointing given their own background of strong political dissent, though not unexpected. But now flaws in their own society and their inability to control them are lit up by the unforgiving glare of the news cameras. This is not how Poland wants to be remembered – as a country where foreign football players and teams threaten to walk off the pitch because of a public which is hostile to racial diversity.
There may be times when negative publicity can be turned to advantage. The Kazakh Government initially banned Sacha Baron Cohen’s satirical film ‘Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan’ because of its undignified representation of their country. Now, the Foreign Minister credits Borat for the increase of tourism to Kazakhstan. But this is an exception.
The lesson here is that governments who want to boost national prestige through international sports or cultural events will not be able to control the foreign media, however much they may control their own. If they have anything to hide, it will be discovered. Just ask the recent Eurovision host, Azerbaijan. A barrage of criticism for one night of fame. Was it worth it? Brazil, take note.