Thursday 15 September 2016

Bernie Ecclestone and the Great Tobacco Debacle - a guest article by Gemma Gale

What did former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair fear would finish his career? Taking the UK into the Iraq War? The claims he made in the case for said war? Or a bit of a scuffle over tobacco sponsorship in F1? If you are familiar with the name 'Bernie Ecclestone', you'll already have ticked number three - and you'd be right. Here's how the strange tale of the mogul, the Prime Minister, and the tobacco unfolded…

Bernie Ecclestone

Photo: Octane Photography
Bernie Ecclestone is (and has for some time been) a British businessman who holds the position of chief of F1. Crucially, he effectively controls all commercial rights to the sport, putting him in an immensely powerful position when it comes to sponsorship and so forth. Back in 1997, before the General Election that would put Blair's Labour Party in power by a landslide, Ecclestone secretly donated £1million to the Labour party. At the time, Ecclestone was heavily involved with tobacco companies, agreeing with them lucrative sponsorship deals, out of which both he and the sport were making a considerable amount of money.

Tobacco Advertising

The problem, of course, with tobacco sponsorship is that it comes with tobacco advertising. Decades of obfuscation and outright denial on the part of tobacco companies had, by 1997, finally given way to a flood of truth and outrage regarding the health risks of smoking. Companies, institutions, and governments worldwide were responding to this with a zealous drive to limit public consumption of cigarettes - including the introduction of things like plain packaging and strict limits on advertising. Riding on the back of this zeal, the Labour party had promised to eradicate tobacco advertising in the UK. Given the size of Ecclestone's donation to their party, the scale of potential future donations, and Ecclestone's close ties to the tobacco industry, a lot of vested interests were about to come into collision.

Exemptions and Investigations

Following their election win, the Labour party announced their intention to make good on their promise to eradicate tobacco advertising. With one potential exception - Formula 1. Ecclestone had, predictably, objected to the ban, and threatened that the sport would leave Britain if its sponsors were not allowed to display their livery on its shores. This would represent a considerable blow to the economy - and, crucially for the Labour party, cause a potential rift with one of their major donors. The public were not at all pleased at Ecclestone's apparent immunity to the advertising ban - they wanted a tobacco-free nation, with no exceptions. Leaping upon the public mood, insurers looked to Silverstone, and the press eagerly began to dig into Ecclestone's past transactions with the Labour party (they've been having fun with it ever since). Through the course of November, the Labour party fought shy regarding Ecclestone's donation - applying for advice on it to the public standards watchdog while struggling to keep a lid on the facts of the matter. But what the British press wants, the British press invariably gets. The Labour party was forced to admit that Ecclestone had been a prominent donor to the party prior to the election. The tobacco storm broke spectacularly.

Apology and Reform

Given the strength of public vitriol, both Ecclestone and the Labour party were forced to back down on the exemption and the donation. Government secretaries admitted that the loss of jobs and revenue should F1 leave the UK would not be as spectacular as Max Mosley (a prominent, pro-tobacco F1 influence) had promised. In the event, nobody need have worried, as racing continued at Silverstone unabated, with British teams and drivers competing throughout the troubled season. Blair appeared on television to apologise personally to the British public regarding the matter. Having a bit of a field day, the press and opposition parties called for - and got - a review into party donation procedures. The Labour party ultimately returned Ecclestone's donation - and stated that, had he not cashed the cheque, they would have donated the money to charity (presumably a lung cancer charity). To this day donations to political parties are looked at askance. Theoretically, all donations to political parties must now be disclosed openly - although a lot of loopholes exist which allows money to pass from individuals and companies to political parties without the knowledge of the public. Funnily enough, no British politician has seen fit to close these loopholes as yet...

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