Last week it looked like politics was overwhelming the FIFA World Cup. Accusations of financial scandal involving the selection of Qatar as the venue for the 2022 competition, and adverse comment about the potential re-election of 78 year-old Sepp Blatter as President of FIFA dwarfed the press content about the actual soccer. Until, that is, the soccer actually started, after which all the dissent and scandal seemed to fade away.
A similar situation occurred six months ago before the Winter Olympics at Sochi. Terrorists threatened to blow up the Games and LGBT activists tried to focus attention on human rights abuse in Russia. But after the opening ceremony, once the skiing and tobogganing started, it was sport, sport, sport all the way.
Is the politicking just a sideshow? Arguably not. If you count column inches then actual event wins, but if you measure the months during which the political campaigns dominate the headlines, and compare that with the three weeks or so of soccer, it begins to explain why the activists are so active.
These are examples of sideshow efficiency – the theory that protests attached to a major event will get a disproportionate amount of publicity and will therefore be particularly beneficial to the protesters.
These sideshows occur in commercial situations as well. Exactly one year ago Paul Flowers, a 64 year old Methodist minister and former Labour councilor, resigned as Chairman of a well-regarded UK financial institution The Co-operative Bank, just before the bank announced that it had a capital shortfall of £1.5 billion. The Bank was owned by hundreds of thousands of ordinary people who belonged to the Co-operative Labour movement. Although Mr Flowers was unqualified to be the Chairman of a bank, and his inabilities undoubtedly contributed to poor governance in this case, the major problems were subsequently found to be systemic management issues attributed the bizarre and arcane way that Bank Board members were elected by regional Co-operative offices.
To fund the shortfall the Bank had to negotiate a rescue package with a group of hedge funds, who effectively took majority ownership. During the rescue negotiations towards the end of 2013 video emerged of Mr Flowers sitting in a car agreeing to buy cocaine and methamphetamine. Shortly afterwards it emerged that Mr Flowers had been involved in the suppression of accusations of pedophilia of political colleagues such as Liberal MP Cyril Smith. And then that a computer he used that was owned by a public institution was found to have indecent photographs stored on its hard drive.
Mr Flowers resigned or was removed from many of the political and charitable organizations which he had been associated with. Each revelation about him was made in the press in a sensationalist way, distracting attention from the bad news about the Bank which he had chaired, and in particular effectively muting criticism from Co-operative members who were appalled by the disastrous management of the Bank.
Coincidence or a deliberately manufactured sideshow? I think this was an example of the use of marginally-associated scandal to veil the details of what would have been difficult and contentious negotiations, and to divert attention from the real responsibilities of the Bank Board. Maybe this facilitated a rescue deal which otherwise might have failed to the detriment of reputation of the UK banking system. But it also created a smokescreen which protected other culprits.
Of course I am not suggesting that the soccer is a smokescreen manufactured to mask the political problems of FIFA. But it will nevertheless help these controversies to wither away. Maybe the theory of sideshow efficiency is flawed after all.
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