Given the very well-documented recent history of the British newspaper business – Google “Milly Dowler” if you need a refresher – the degree of difficulty for establishing new lows in journalistic integrity would appear to be a very tall order. And yet the Daily Mirror nearly pulled it off on Saturday with their front page story and photograph (with more inside!) about the sad end of Wigmore Hall on the turf at Doncaster.
Perhaps you missed this on Paulick or on Twitter, so we will provide here a brief synopsis. On Saturday the 13th of September the green screen came into use at Doncaster, as the rugged and talented 7-year-old Wigmore Hall suffered a catastrophic injury and had to be put down on the racetrack in order to minimize his suffering. But the green screen only blocks the view of the injured horse from the paying customers in the grandstand, so it did not prevent an unidentified candidate for sainthood in the infield from reeling off several shots of the dying horse’s last moments and subsequently making those photographs available to the Daily Mirror. Which published them yesterday in dubious service to their readers under the headline “Shot in the head … a tragic end to a ($2 million) champion.”
As much as it pained me to contribute to the Mirror’s unique reader and page view counts, I visited the site a second and final time today so that I could describe the photos here and allow you to form your own opinion as to their journalistic value. I will not link to them. Photo one shows Wigmore Hall standing on three legs as a vet holds a pistol to the horse’s head. Photo two shows Wigmore Hall crumpling to the ground. Photo three shows the vet checking the dead horse’s neck for a pulse that is not there.
While it is probably safe to say that the photographer was the only person present at Doncaster who was actually hoping that a horse would break down, our concern here is not the internal motivations of any individual. Rather, our concern is with the group decision inside the offices of the Mirror that led to these photographs getting front page play. Were these photos “newsworthy”? Hardly, as Wigmore Hall’s injury and humane destruction had already been widely reported. Is it news that catastrophically-injured horses are relieved of their suffering by guns or needles? How was society served by bringing these photos to the general public? We turn to Lloyd Embley, the Mirror’s editor, who told the Guardian that there had been “an extensive debate” within the paper, before adding:
“The intention was to be as balanced as possible. In fact, two of the three opinion pieces we carried were in defence of horse racing.”
Thank goodness for “balance”. For those of you unfamiliar with this fig leaf that helps to cover the junk that is today’s “journalism”, balance is the thing that tells you it’s OK to run a front page photo of a horse about to take one between the eyes so long as there are one or two strongly-worded editorials somewhere in there between the Page Three Girl and the horoscopes.
If the Mirror had been brave enough to actually take a stand and come out forcefully against horse racing, then you could at least give them credit for having the courage of their convictions. But Embley’s words are those of a weasel, and the only convictions he and his fellow editors have shown are to newsstand sales, page views and the bottom line. The Mirror’s editor dressed up this cheap stunt by telling the Guardian “there is clearly some debate about the issue and more than one opinion”, as if there was some debate on whether or not catastrophically-injured horses should be euthanized, or whether a needle is preferable to a gun (there is no such debate). It takes a staggering level of cynicism to bear witness to an act of of mercy and represent it as shameful violence, but that is exactly what the Mirror has done.
The Mirror did note that Wigmore Hall’s was the only death from 1,563 runners this season at Doncaster, which is an astoundingly low rate, even lower than the “fewer than one fatality per thousand runners” statistic that describes the high level of safety at British flat races. These are difficult days for the thoroughbred racing industry, but there is nothing in the Wigmore Hall story that even hints at abuse or other shameful activity. Which is much more than can be said about those beacons of virtue who publish the Daily Mirror.