Me­dia can make a stand by boy­cotting Saudi golf event

The Irish Times - Monday - Sport - - Sports - Malachy Clerkin

When pars­ing press re­leases, it al­ways pays to ex­am­ine what isn’t there while you’re wad­ing through the swamp of guff that is. The Euro­pean Tour an­nounced their fi­nalised sched­ule for 2019 last week and over the course of 1,032 words of PR gold, they gave shout-outs to pretty much ev­ery­thing that will hap­pen in Euro­pean golf next year.

Ev­ery­thing got a men­tion, from the Rolex Se­ries to Golf Sixes to the Tro­phy Has­san in Morocco and the Vic Open in Aus­tralia, both of which will fea­ture men and women play­ing to­gether. The just about stopped short of list­ing the date for the cap­tain’s prize at Port­marnock.

Ex­cept for one thing. The press re­lease made no men­tion any­where of the Saudi In­ter­na­tional, be­ing played for the first time as a Euro­pean Tour event next Jan­uary. They made sure to give a big wel­come to the Kenya Open, the other new event on the sched­ule, penned in for next March. You would imag­ine that if a low-grade event like the Kenya Open (to­tal purse, ¤1.1m) mer­its a full para­graph, surely a higher-pro­file new­comer like the Saudi In­ter­na­tional (to­tal purse $3.5m) would as well.

But no. Not so much as a sen­tence. Not that there was any news to re­late – the tour inked a three-year deal with Saudi Ara­bia last March, mak­ing it the third tour­na­ment in the pres­ti­gious Desert Swing at that kicks the year into gear through the mid­dle and end of Jan­uary. Back then, tour chief ex­ec­u­tive Keith Pel­ley was pos­i­tively gush­ing about the de­vel­op­ment, and es­pe­cially grate­ful to the Saudi head of state for his role in the coup.

Bash­ful

“We are very ex­cited to be talk­ing the first steps to­ward bring­ing pro­fes­sional golf to the King­dom of Saudi Ara­bia for the first time and I must thank His Royal Majesty, Mo­ham­mad bin Sal­man bin Ab­du­laziz Al Saud for his vi­sion in mak­ing this hap­pen,” Pel­ley said. Noth­ing to be bash­ful about back then, clearly.

Spin the tape on and it would be an un­der­state­ment to say that the tour’s Mid­dle Eastern coup has been some­what over­taken by events. The mur­der of jour­nal­ist Jamel Khashoggi in the Saudi con­sulate in Turkey and the on­go­ing bru­tal­ity waged by the Saudis in Ye­men means that sud­denly Pel­ley’s lit­tle coup in adding an­other oil state to his list of tour stops sud­denly looks like noth­ing to shout too loudly from the rooftops about.

And as for his good friend Prince Sal­man, let’s just say it will be in­ter­est­ing to see what the in­vite list looks like at the Royal Greens GC 12 weeks from now. Pre­sum­ably he will want in on this joy­ous new event that is grac­ing his coun­try. It’s not in­con­ceiv­able he’ll want to be there while the tro­phy is pre­sented. Might even want to do the hon­ours him­self. Now there’s a photo to hang on the wall at tour head­quar­ters.

Fi­nally, be­lat­edly and at the point of a bay­o­net, Pel­ley took ques­tions over the week­end on it. Not that he was in the mood for shar­ing very much that would count as be­ing en­light­en­ing, of course. Or in­deed very much of any­thing, come to that.

Stock an­swer

Yes, the tour­na­ment is on the sched­ule for 2019. No, he hasn’t talked to any­one from Saudi gov­ern­ment or golf fed­er­a­tion in the past three weeks. No, he hasn’t talked to any play­ers about it. No, he hasn’t talked to spon­sors about it. To ev­ery other ques­tion on the is­sue came a stock an­swer – “we’ll con­tinue to mon­i­tor the sit­u­a­tion.”

Well, all other ques­tions ex­cept one. Pel­ley had been to Saudi Ara­bia ear­lier in the year to sign the deal that would make the tour­na­ment part of the tour from next Jan­uary on­wards. Based on his ex­pe­ri­ences while he was there, he was asked what his re­sponse would be if one of the play­ers came to him to ex­press con­cerns now. The re­ply was drea­rily, pre­dictably tin-eared.

Pri­or­i­ties

“The golf course is ter­rific,” Pel­ley pro­nounced. “It’s in ex­cel­lent shape. And that’s what – that’s the first thing that I would talk about. I al­ways talk about the golf course. I al­ways talk about what kind of shape it is in. And when you look at that Mid­dle East swing, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Saudi Ara­bia, it gets three very strong tour­na­ments at the be­gin­ning of the year.”

He’s not wrong, of course. To the out­side world, those words might well read like some­one has their pri­or­i­ties a lit­tle off-kil­ter but no, the sim­ple truth is Pel­ley’s con­stituents are the play­ers and the even sim­pler truth is that they don’t care about any of this. For the most part, all they want to know is how close the ho­tel is to the course, how close the course is to the air­port, how many drives they can hit in a round and how pure are the greens. Af­ter that, ev­ery­thing else is noise.

Rights and wrongs

Pádraig Har­ring­ton made a man­ful ef­fort dur­ing the week in Turkey to tease out the rights and wrongs of go­ing to play in Saudi at a time when they are a clear and ob­vi­ous bad ac­tor on the world stage. His point was along the lines of it be­ing dan­ger­ous to push na­tions away by shut­ting them off and re­fus­ing to go and play there. And even if you see that as some­what mealy-mouthed, at least Har­ring­ton had the wit and stones to give an opin­ion on a live is­sue. He didn’t go hid­ing like the tour did for most of the week.

Pel­ley says they will mon­i­tor the sit­u­a­tion but gave no hint of what that might mean. If the Saudis keep up their ram­page in Ye­men – and there’s no sugges­tion that they’re in any way minded to back off – does mon­i­tor­ing it mean that Pel­ley keeps an eye on CNN for the next three months and then just turns up and plays on re­gard­less? Pre­sum­ably, that’s ex­actly what it means. The con­tracts are signed, the money is huge and Pel­ley is the chief bot­tle-washer at an or­gan­i­sa­tion that turned over €70min spon­sor­ship money alone last year.

No pre­tence

Here’s a thing, though. If the Saudi In­ter­na­tional does go ahead, surely it’s not be­yond the wit of us all to ig­nore it? There is no pre­tence here – Saudi Ara­bia is host­ing a golf tour­na­ment so that the wider world will think bet­ter of Saudi Ara­bia, will look the other way on its ap­palling hu­man rights, will maybe even make it a tourist des­ti­na­tion like Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

So how about this? How about the me­dia de­cides as one not to give it what it wants? A jour­nal­ist was mur­dered for do­ing his job in re­la­tion to the Saudi state – can we maybe do ours and de­cide not to be used for their pro­pa­ganda? How about ev­ery­one – from Sky Sports to the Golf Chan­nel to PA to The New York Times to

The Ir­ish Times to the lowli­est golf pod­cast or blog – how about we all de­cide that for that week, the tour stop gets a black-out?

Jour­nal­ism has to be about more than pars­ing press re­leases, af­ter all.

A jour­nal­ist was mur­dered for do­ing his job in re­la­tion to the Saudi state – can we maybe do ours and de­cide not to be used for their pro­pa­ganda?

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