In Support of the Little Men

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It’s never been a secret that Alan Jones has a vested interest in the racing industry a silken one, at least. Its name is Monterrico; its trainer Gai Waterhouse. During the Spring Racing season, mentions of Monterrico on Radio 2GB are rife. Ray Hadley even has a special sound clip of Monterrico braying, that he trots out each Melbourne Cup day. So Jones’s concern about Equine Influenza was to be expected, even before the public knew about his part ownership of the stud stallion Redoubt’s Choice. He has certainly dealt with the issue more extensively than most other media presenters, flogging the story long after others presumed it dead.

The moment the story broke, Jones referred to the horse flu outbreak as ‘the darkest day in racing history.’ Like most other media, his early reportage focused on the potential of the disease to incapacitate racing in NSW and Australia. To ruin the breeding chances of an entire generation of horses. On the sensational possibility that it might endanger the Melbourne Cup, and the nation-wide popping of champagne bottles it entails. And, on what is even less surprising after recent revelations, on the potential of the virus to ruin this years’ breeding season, and lose ‘an entire generation of horses.’ And income.

But from the very beginning, Jones was careful to construct his commentary around horse racing as an industry, not a leisure activity, and as an employer of a lot of people. In very subtlety graded language, he maintained the issue was not about the wealthy, slick-suited, gentleman racehorse owners (or people very much like himself) but about the workers, the people he aspires to represent. ‘This is not the thoroughbred industry,’ he said, ‘we’re talking about the horse industry.’

The crisis, according to Jones, was mostly about the livelihood of the little man. ‘As of today, there could be anything up to 50,000 people out of work across New South Wales. And they’re not millionaires.’ Instead, they are TAB workers, taxi drivers, truckies, hotel staff, ticket staff, pie-sellers (yes, pie-sellers not chefs, or caterers) wait staff, bar staff, strappers, bookies, jockeys and cleaners. Not a mention of big-time punters, trainers or horse owners. And only secondly was the crisis about Government revenue from the TAB.

Nonetheless, Jones’s initial coverage of equine influenza was the kind of reporting that he does best, and it has won him the outstanding loyalty of his listeners. He attacked a complex and unsexy issue in a way that made it relevant for his audience.

His expert interviews such as Dr James Gilkerson from Equine Vets Australia, the body responsible for designing the emergency horse flu response explained the virus, the issue, and what the appropriate response.

According to Jones, Gilkerson is a man who ‘knows the whole show backwards.’ Despite Jones’s wild speculations, he assured him that inoculation was not necessary or appropriate and that the disease could not be spread by ‘birds in Centennial Park eating horse dung,’ by tourists or by APEC delegates from infected countries such as the USA.

(Incidentally, Jones was not the first on his morning show to connect the crisis with the APEC summit. His regular caller Stephanie, a Hansonist housewife, had already pointed out that the virus was most likely imported deliberately, by APEC protestors, wanting to infect and disable the police horses stationed near Centennial Park. Naturally.)

Alhough Jones levelled criticism at the Federal Government for allowing quarantine standards to fall and be breached, his initial reporting was full of praise for the rapid response, for the seriousness with which the Government was handling the issue, and for the compensation packages it later announced. But as the crisis continued, and industry dissent deepened, Jones turned around with all the agility of an unpopular politician.

Suddenly, containment and control of horse movements was not the way to go, and the Government’s reliance on them was both destructive and ill advised:

The so-called lockdown the edict that you can’t move horses anywhere is ridiculous and discredited. About as discredited as the argument that you can eliminate the flu or contain it. Put all of those together and you’ve got bureaucracy, hand in hand with government, now imposing hundreds of millions of dollars of damage to an industry.

Jones referred to the Government’s advisors, such as Dr James Gilkerson, as ‘dog and cat people [who]know nothing about equine influenza,’ and to Government statistics as ‘stupid,’ because ‘you can’t run round sticking a thermometer up the backside of every horse.’

Instead, he interviewed Dr Peter Timony, from the Equine Research Foundation in Kentucky, who advocated allowing all horses to contract the disease and recover, and a policy of inoculation. Of course, airing dissenting views and debate does bring balance and nuance to any issue, especially in talk radio. Jones’s interview, however, did not once mention the information and views that Gilkerson had aired days before. He even stated that containment could not work because birds spread the virus, despite Gilkerson’s determination that this was ‘most highly improbable’.

Moreover, the kinds of controls that Timony advised allow for the free movement of all horses, within a restricted, diseased area- such as the Hunter Valley. As he put it ‘Put a metaphorical fence around it, and let horses within the fence move and horses from outside can come in it, but they stay in until it’s flu-free. But people can get on with their business.’ It’s exactly the kind of system that would allow Jones’s stallion, Redoute’s Choice, to work its magic on the mares, and on his bank account.

And when criticising the Government, Jones’s focus on the wider problems of horse flu switched track as well. While he continued to point out that the battlers were suffering, he raised the twin scepters of decreased gaming revenue and compensation packages. In other words: the longer the horse flu virus damages the racing industry, the more likely it becomes that every one be they big or little man will have to pay.

Both the State and Federal Governments, he maintained were ‘presiding over an absolute catastrophe and when the class actions begin and compensation starts, taxpayers will be hit for hundreds of millions of dollars.’ Interestingly enough, Jones also began to focus more on interviewing industry leaders and officials, such as Racing NSW’s Peter V’Landys and Chief Steward Ray Murrihy rather than the truck drivers, TAB workers and stablehands he’d claimed were being driven to bankruptcy.

Of course, now that mass horse vaccinations are being carried out across the country, Jones has been pacified. But gaming revenue, and the effect of horse flu on the economy, is not an issue he will let go of lightly, especially as debates about poker machines and gambling in NSW circulate in the media. Jones continues to defend the gaming industry for the taxes it generates, saying this money is no different to taxes on cigarettes and alcohol.

Monterrico, for one, would agree.

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