• The Inside Line

Smoke, mirrors, Sochi

Kate Walker February 21, 2014
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As one of the world's acknowledged sultans of the soundbite, it was interesting to see Bernie Ecclestone's CNN interview in which the F1 boss was supportive of Vladimir Putin's stance on gay rights.

While Ecclestone has never been one to shy away from the controversial statement - see Danica Patrick as a kitchen appliance, or praise for Adolf Hitler's ability to get things done - the timing of his comments can hardly have been a coincidence.

On the one hand, with the Russian Grand Prix making its debut in Sochi this October, it would not behove Bernie to anger the Russian government. But given that the 'Ecclestone agrees with Putin' headlines hit the news aggregators not long after judgment was passed on the Constantin Medien case going through London's High Court, it's hard to believe that there was no deliberate link between the latest controversial newsfeed fodder and the desire to draw attention away from a number of damning statements made by presiding judge Mr Justice Newey.

After all, why make any statement on Putin's position on gay rights? Few people would expect an 83-year-old - any 83-year-old - to have a progressive stance on such an issue.

We all remember the London Grand Prix story that enthralled the media in June 2012, in the very week that Gerhard Gribkowsky was jailed for accepting a bribe. Specialist outlets reported on both stories, but in the mainstream press the vast majority of column inches were dedicated to breathless speculation about the sights and sounds of 22 Formula One cars roaring through central London, passing historic buildings and monuments along the way. As if.

And given the damning conclusions reached by the presiding judge in London - whose statements have no bearing on the forthcoming Munich trial, but were based on much the same evidence as will be presented in Germany - it is hard to see Ecclestone's anti-gay comments as anything more than the latest round in distractive media-baiting.

The full 104-page Approved Judgment of Case No: HC11C02586 makes for heavy reading in parts, but if the Munich court's interpretation of the evidence and witness statements is anything like the London High Court's, then Ecclestone's legal team will be in for a hard fight in Germany come April.

The German case centres on whether or not Ecclestone is guilty of having bribed a public official, as Gribkowsky's position with a state-owned bank made him a de facto holder of a public office. Gribkowsky has already been found guilty of accepting a bribe, but Ecclestone asserts that the payments made were in response to a "shakedown" that saw the German banker allegedly threaten to inform the UK HMRC that all was not what it seemed with the Ecclestone family trusts. Had Gribkowsky gone ahead with the alleged threat, it would have led to an expensive and drawn-out investigation that Ecclestone claims would have cost him more than the "hush money" paid out.

"The likelihood is, I think, that Dr Gribkowsky's version of events is broadly accurate," Mr Justice Newey concluded in his summary judgment of the Constantin Medien affair, which touched on the Gribkowsky bribery scandal. "It is consistent with, and in important respects supported by, other evidence, while the evidence given by Mr Ecclestone and Mr Mullens contains inconsistencies and is otherwise unsatisfactory. Further, bribery is far more probable than the only other explanation offered for the Payments, viz. that they were made in response to a 'shakedown'. The blackmail/'shakedown' story is thoroughly implausible. On balance, accordingly, I consider that the Payments represented a bribe."

Earlier in the document, Newey went into greater detail about the reasons behind his conclusions: "Neither Mr Ecclestone nor Mr Mullens identified any specific threat from Dr Gribkowsky. Each instead referred to 'insinuations'. When giving evidence in Germany, Mr Ecclestone said that Dr Gribkowsky 'never specifically stated or threatened that any given event would take place' and that there was no threat along the lines of 'Either you pay or I go the tax office.' In the present proceedings, Mr Ecclestone explained in cross-examination that Dr Gribkowsky never said what he would tell HMRC and accepted that Dr Gribkowsky did not give any details of how he would substantiate any claim that Mr Ecclestone was to be identified with the Bambino Trust.

"The evidence indicates that Dr Gribkowsky is unlikely to have been in a position to give HMRC information that could cause Mr Ecclestone or Bambino any serious difficulties. Neither Mr Ecclestone nor Mr Mullens has identified any such information. More than that, questions relating to Mr Ecclestone's involvement with the Bambino Trust had been raised before, including by BLB. When giving evidence in Germany, Mr Ecclestone said that he had been aware that BLB's lawyers had been trying to make a connection between him and Bambino for the purposes of the litigation about the boards of FOH and FOA and the share in FOA issued to Mr Ecclestone. Had Dr Gribkowsky known anything showing such a connection, it would surely have been deployed in that litigation."

In what was perhaps the most quotable blow of the whole affair, Mr Justice Newey included in his judgment the headline grabbing statement calling into question the veracity of Ecclestone's testimony in a line that went around the world: "Even, however, making allowances for the lapse of time and Mr Ecclestone's age, I am afraid that I find it impossible to regard him as a reliable or truthful witness."

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Kate Walker is the editor of GP Week magazine and a freelance contributor to ESPN. A member of the F1 travelling circus since 2010, her unique approach to Formula One coverage has been described as 'a collection of culinary reviews and food pictures from exotic locales that just happen to be playing host to a grand prix'.
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Kate Walker is the editor of GP Week magazine and a freelance contributor to ESPN. A member of the F1 travelling circus since 2010, her unique approach to Formula One coverage has been described as 'a collection of culinary reviews and food pictures from exotic locales that just happen to be playing host to a grand prix'.