Over the past few years a new trend has emerged in British journalism. Our trade has become over-run with reporters or columnists who are not quite what they seem. They pretend to report objectively on events. In practice the true loyalty of these campaigning reporters or columnists is not just to their readers.
Sometimes covertly, sometimes furtively, they also further the agendas of political parties and interest groups. This confusion of loyalties is a notorious problem at Westminster, but is now spreading beyond the political desks of national newspapers. Last weekend’s reporting of the Grand National was a very troubling example of the muddling of categories between straightforward reporting and campaigning journalism.
Let’s take a look at Chris McGrath, racing correspondent of the Independent. McGrath scarcely bothered to report the scintillating (and for genuine lovers of horses very important) racing on offer on the first day of the Aintree meeting.
For him there was only one event that really mattered: the heart attack suffered by Katie Walsh’s mount Battlefront after the Fox Hunters’ Chase.
‘The tragedy represents an excruciating start to the meeting for Aintree officials,’ claimed McGrath. He gloated how the officials ‘had been hoping that Walsh would generate redemptive headlines’ but instead found themselves forced to explain away Battlefront’s death. The incident gave McGrath an opportunity to list the names of two horses (Synchronised and According to Pete) who died in last year’s Grand National. The Independent’s back page was devoted to the Battlefront story, under the stark headline: ‘Tragedy hits Grand National meet as Walsh’s mount dies’. The subhead stressed how Battlefront’s collapse occurred ‘after being pulled up during race over controversial big fences of Aintree course’.
The Fox Hunters’ had in truth been a wonderful and stirring race, won in the last stride by the 100-1 outsider Tartan Snow. But as far as the Independent was concerned, this was now irrelevant. ‘All the talk will be of Battlefront’s death’, screamed the newspaper. Racing was a ‘sport in torment’.
The Guardian took the same approach. ‘Aintree racecourse endured a miserable opening’, announced the newspaper’s Greg Wood, under the lurid headline ‘Horse’s death sours first day at Aintree’. The subhead added that the fatality has occurred in ‘the opening race over new Grand National fences’.
To Mr Wood’s credit, further down his story he did include the essential quote from Ted Walsh, Battlefront’s trainer: ‘It could have happened to him hunting, it could have happened to him walking around the ring. Horses can get a heart attack anywhere. It’s nothing to do with Liverpool or the National fences.’
In other words Battlefront’s heart attack, though sad, was not the disaster for Aintree which both the Guardian and Independent claimed. Horses, like human beings, have heart attacks from time to time. It’s one of those things.
Approximately 100 horses raced on the first day of the Grand National meeting. All, with the exception of Battlefront, returned safely. There is no evidence of any kind that Battlefront’s death had the slightest connection to the Aintree fences. It was deceitful of the Guardian and the Independent to try to suggest that there was.
The two newspapers were not simply misleading their readers. They were also guilty of a lack of proportion. Of course safety is an issue, and everyone agrees that Aintree should respond to safety concerns. But the vast majority of racing fans are also interested in the outstanding sport on offer at Aintree, after Cheltenham the second most important meeting in the national hunt season.
Yet Chris McGrath and Greg Wood’s reporting was geared much more to suit the agenda of outside organisations which want to ban the National, such as the pressure group Animal Aid, than the vast majority of racing fans.
The same obsession is true of the BBC. (Try listening to last week’s lurid Jeremy Vine show. Of all the callers, texts and facebook messages referenced, only one was not entirely negative about the race.) It is easy to see what is going on. The British media is setting up the Grand National to fail.
Mainstream newspapers reported the death of one horse through a heart attack on the Thursday as a disaster for Aintree. No imagination is required to wonder what they would have done if two or three horses had died in the big race on Saturday.
As it happened, there were no deaths this year. But the press is waiting to pounce: ‘Racing, a sport that has long since sold its soul to the barrow boys of the gambling industry, has merely had a reprieve,’ warned the Independent on the day after the Grand National. McGrath (and his biased, distorted reporting) will be back next year.
I believe that the Grand National is the greatest event of the British sporting year. It’s about passion, and courage, incredible skill and unbelievable daring. Furthermore, Britain’s racehorse safety standards are higher than anywhere in the world, and British and Irish racing folk, like Battlefront’s trainer Ted Walsh, adore their horses and treat them like family pets. But the race cannot be made risk-free (for either horses or jockeys) without completely destroying its character. More than 600 million viewers watch it worldwide, and other countries would love to put on a comparable show. It’s time for racing to be more proud and confident, and fight for its greatest asset.
Peter Oborne is chief political commentator of the Daily Telegraph.