MAURICE HAMILTON

Whose side are you on?


The power of Twitter is such that you can lie in bed on Sunday morning in Melbourne and be across the global gossip. A quick scan of overnight messages - overnight for us in Oz but daylight tweeting in the UK - showed an interesting comment from the sharp-eyed Mark Gallagher. Being a specialist in the commercial and financial affairs of motor sport, Gallagher had picked up tweets that led him to an explosive story on F1.

The tweets, posted by Mark Kleinman, talked about F1 shares being sold and Luca di Montezemolo and Dietrich Mateschitz being made directors of the F1 Board; tasty bait designed to lure you with very little difficulty to Kleinman's story; a revelation as City Editor of Sky News that the administration of F1 was about to be turned on its head. Here, as Gallagher noted with mild amusement, was news that would have certain F1 team principals spluttering on their cornflakes.

Was the story kosher? Kleinman was already known to Caterham, the former Lotus team, for his uncomfortable inside legal knowledge during the naming court room battle with Group Lotus. There was no doubt at the time that he had friends in informed places and, reading this latest piece, there was no doubt now that an insider had spilled the beans. Kleinman was writing with authority on an alleged move that could set team against team and assist CVC Capital Partners, the owners of F1, to sell off a minority share-holding while weakening any thoughts of a collective take-over bid by the teams.

Kleinman's story was posted on Sky News at 18.10 GMT on Saturday. I flicked across to SkySportsF1, expecting to see the website trumpeting the scoop from top to bottom of their website.

Not a word. Not a guarded 'It is alleged that'; 'Our sources believe that' news item handled with kid gloves. Not even a caveat 'Look, sorry to mention this and dunno who this bloke Kleinman is, but we feel you really ought to know...' just to cover their sporting backside. There was nothing. Niente. Nada.

SkySportsF1, still finding their feet, have been classed in the 'Day Late, Dollar Short' division rather than heading the 'Must Read' category of F1 websites. It seemed strange, therefore, that they should miss out on such a stunning story emanating from their own back yard.

Then, as if by magic, the Sky News item disappeared a couple of hours later, only to reappear, largely unchanged, on Monday afternoon. What happened inbetween is as interesting as the story itself.

Imagine the scene. The Australian Grand Prix was the first live race for a TV network that has promised to transform the way F1 is broadcast. And, to do it, Sky brought 81 people to Melbourne; that's probably more than the HRT team can muster on a good day.

For this adventurous and much-hyped mission, Sky require the full cooperation of the players in such foreign territory. Sky are up against BBC TV, a well-rehearsed and widely respected operation totally familiar with F1, its politics and peculiarities. The last thing the Sky F1 team needed going into race day was to have some bloke they'd scarcely heard of rock the boat; particularly someone from within their own organisation. It had to be the worst possible nightmare for Martin Turner, Sky's executive producer for F1. The battery on his mobile had probably expired before lunch time on Sunday.

This story within a story was soon picked up by the dog-eat-dog media world, one British newspaper suggesting that Turner would have been on the phone to Sky News 'to relay the concern of the teams'. And the rest! It's fair to assume that Turner will have given vent to his frustration and the absence of, at best, consultation and, at worst, some warning.

All of which leads to an interesting conflict of interest. Here we have a slick news organisation that prides itself on editorial independence removing a story for 40 hours to, apparently, check out its detail. Nothing to do with upsetting those nice people in F1, of course.

These are crucial times for SkySportsF1. The figures for Australia show an average of 874,000 viewers taking in their live coverage of the race. According to analysts, Sky were 75 per cent down on BBC's coverage in 2011. Which is to be expected, perhaps, since the BBC is free-to-air whereas Sky viewers have to pay for the privilege.

The Sky coverage appears to have been very well received by those who could afford to watch it. But, just one race in, the Sky organisation has discovered the very fine line between one department reporting news and the other trying not to generate it while tip-toeing through a political minefield separating a glorious vision from hard-nosed reality. Welcome to Formula 1.

Maurice Hamilton , a freelance motor sport writer and broadcaster since 1977, is the author of more than twenty books and contributes to websites and magazines worldwide.

His weekly column for Grandprix.com was Highly Commended in the 2011 Newspress New Media Awards.

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