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Bernie Ecclestone: Teflon manMaurice Hamilton April 29, 2014
After watching a TV programme about the affairs and habits of Bernie Ecclestone, an immediate reaction is to check your wallet. That's the effect of a flood of clever detail that baffles in the manner you imagine Ecclestone intended. It's legal; it's correct. And yet, if you believe the innuendo espoused by some of the interviewees on the BBC's Panorama: Lies, Bribes and Formula One it's a scandal verging on daylight robbery.
The investigation, despite diligent research by presenter Darragh MacIntyre, amounted to no more than insinuation and talk of ambiguity over Ecclestone's myriad affairs and methods. When you hear Emily Thornberry MP, Shadow Attorney General, say: "He [Ecclestone] should be held to account" and, later in the 30-minute programme: "There is something wrong and should be investigated", the urge is to shout at the telly: "You keep saying that! Why don't you do something?" But, of course, those in Official Opposition can't and others have tried and failed. Exactly, as you suspect, Bernie knew they would.
This is no surprise. If you cast your mind back to 1997 and Ecclestone's £1m donation to the Labour party, there was outrage and the money was handed back because the payment might be construed as a means of easing regulation on tobacco advertising in motor sport.
That was not actually the case, but the accompanying embarrassment for the government alerted the world to this man Ecclestone and prompted full-on investigations into his background. Every national newspaper in the country started digging. What did they find? Nada. Niente. Nothing.
Given what we know now about the methods of certain sections of the media (courtesy of the Leveson Inquiry into phone hacking), that tells you how clever Bernie is at covering his tracks - no matter how dubious they may seem - in a legitimate manner.
Ecclestone is in the news at present thanks to the on-going court case in Munich over an alleged 'corrupt agreement'. The Panorama programme muddied its own water slightly by focussing on Ecclestone's earlier affairs, ranging back to the alleged avoidance of inheritance tax in the early 1990s, an issue that would be difficult to tie down after all this time, assuming the authorities had a mind to do so.
The one interesting revelation concerned the payment of £10m to the Inland Revenue in 2008; a "sweetheart deal with the taxman" according to some sources, or an agreement that has been viewed in the Daily Mail by Tom Bower as the former Mrs Ecclestone "settling her own outstanding taxes for having benefitted from the family trust".
Ecclestone has since said it was not a deal, claiming this was an outstanding amount (in connection with private use of his planes, cars and homes) brought to his attention by the Revenue and he duly paid it, as all good UK citizens do. That is perfectly true. But he is referring to an entirely separate £10m from the same more controversial figure paid by Mrs Ecclestone. Once again, Bernie's deft footwork left his inquisitors looking bemused as he avoided the key question just as smartly as he appears to have legitimately dodged paying tax.
So, where are we now? The court case in Munich is being presided over by the same judge who sent Gerhard Gribkowsky down for receiving £27m from Ecclestone. That is an ominous beginning. But if Bernie's legal team think the outlook is not good, they can accept guilt, apply for early parole, pay a fine and have the Teflon-coated 83-year-old back in the F1 paddock before his exasperated accusers have had time to check their metaphorical wallets. Such a process would be entirely above board.
What's new? Nada. Niente. Nothing.
Maurice Hamilton writes for ESPN F1.