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NATIONAL COMPLAINT - Letter to the BBC
Posted 1 June 2002
The death of two horses during the Grand National race this year went unmentioned by the BBC commentary team and barely rated a mention in subsequent coverage of the event - the news was quite simply 'buried along with the animals'. Our letter of complaint to the BBC Director General is reproduced here.
London W1A 1AA
April 23, 2002
Dear Mr Dyke
I write in regard to the BBC's television and radio coverage of the Aintree three-day horse racing meet, culminating in the Grand National on April 6. First let me set my complaint about your coverage in context.
Animal Aid has a long-standing concern about the serious and under-reported welfare problems associated with horse racing in general. They include the thousands of young horses every year who fail to make the professional grade and are put down before they ever see the starter's flag. Equally, of the roughly 4,000 race horses who annually leave racing, few enjoy a decent retirement. Many endure a downward spiral of neglect - passed from owner to owner. Others are slaughtered for pet food or in Continental abattoirs.
Then there are the hundreds of equines raced to death each year. Animal Aid conducted a survey of the 1999/2000 National Hunt season and found (and named) the 247 horses who died or were euthanased as a result of their racing injuries; that amounts to one horse killed for every 31 who raced during that season.
I now come to the BBC's coverage of this year's Aintree meet. Four horses died on the Aintree courses during the three days. Two perished during the National itself - and yet the BBC effectively avoided altogether any mention of the Saturday fatalities and granted barely a sentence to the earlier deaths.
On Thursday, Desert Mountain fractured his shoulder and Anubis Quercus broke his back. During the Grand National, The Last Fling broke his back and Manx Magic fractured his neck.
The seriousness of these Saturday injuries would have been identified almost immediately and the horses would have died or been shot before the end of the race. Your commentary team, which featured two experienced jockeys who had both ridden in the National itself, would have known what had happened, and yet reference to the fate of these horses was ostentatiously avoided. This was despite the fact that the race was re-screened in slow motion - during the course of which, the fatally injured animals were plainly in view.
Animal Aid was not able to monitor all your coverage but my understanding is as follows:
BBC 1 television made no mention whatsoever of the Saturday fatalities. There was merely an ambiguous reference to one 'casualty'. Radio 5 Live failed to mention the deaths - certainly for some hours. Radio 2 failed to mention the deaths. Radio 4's first and only mention of the two fatalities was a brief reference at around 15 minutes past midnight.
It is, therefore, hardly surprising that of the many people I have spoken to about this year's Grand National in the days since the race, not one knew that horses had been killed - not unless they were part of our campaign and had, as a consequence, been informed as to the outcome by Animal Aid.
I presume you would not want to argue that the British public has no interest in whether or not horses die during this event; or that the BBC is justified in all but failing to report on the four fatalities.
The industry itself was alarmed in the run-up to this year's Aintree event at the prospect of more deaths. It is aware that the public is increasingly disturbed at the annual Aintree carnage. Since 1997, 27 horses have died at Aintree. One died last year and five the year before.
The suspicion must be that your front-line racing team - which included two former leading jockeys and the daughter of a man who trains horses for the Queen - was determined not to sully its coverage with appropriate reporting of the bad news. This is a betrayal not just of the equine victims but of the many welfare-sensitive members of the viewing public.
There is also the issue of commercial motives. Could it be that with millions of pounds to be earned from rights sales to overseas TV companies, the BBC was determined to present a sanitised version of the event?
In light of the above, I feel I must state the obvious at this juncture: the
Aintree event is a wholly commercial enterprise. The BBC has a public service
mandate. A handsome income accruing to the Corporation from rights sales to
overseas TV companies - or via other initiatives - is no justification for abandoning
its statutory and ethical responsibilities.
In order to help us form a clearer view of the dynamics at work in this affair, I am setting out below a number of questions. I'd much appreciate straightforward answers.
- How much is paid by the BBC to the organisers of the Aintree event for the right to screen the races? What are the comparative figures for 2001 and 2000?
- What income accrues to the BBC in respect of footage/ services made available to overseas TV companies? (Figures for 2001 and 2002)
- With how many foreign TV companies, in how many countries, does the BBC have a commercial arrangement in respect of the Aintree meet? (Figures for 2001 and 2002)
- What was the size, respectively, of the British viewing audience and the overseas viewing audience for this year's Grand National? (Figures for 2001 and 2002)
- What is the total cost to the BBC of its coverage of the Aintree meet? (Figures for 2001 and 2002)
- What was the size of the broadcast and technical crew involved in this year's event? (Figures for 2001 and 2002)
- Are any payments made to the Jockey Club and/or to the British Horseracing Board with respect to the Aintree meet? (Figures for 2001 and 2002)
- What is the projected total BBC expenditure on horse racing coverage this year? (Figures for 2001 and 2002)
I much look forward to your response to the above questions.
Please see Animal Aid's website for details of our campaign against the Grand National and for our general concerns about the welfare of race horses.
Director, Animal Aid