A horse race, a shock-jock and an opera house – a Sydney tale that could be anywhere

12 October 2018 Comments 0

There’s been a fascinating story rolling out from my home town of Sydney in the past couple of weeks, which has fairly much consumed local media for that time. But on reflecting on it, I think it’s worth sharing with those of you who read this because it has an important lesson for all of us.

It’s about a horse race, a ‘shock-jock’ and an icon, the Sydney Opera House.

The horse race is, frankly, one I hadn’t heard of until all of this brouhaha started – which is probably partly the point. It’s called the Everest and is billed as the richest turf face in the world. This year is only the second time it has been held (they’re running this Saturday), and the race was no doubt created to help Sydney take some of the attention away from its great rival, Melbourne, during the Spring Racing Carnivals where Melbourne has long reigned supreme.

The ‘shock-jock’ is a radio talk show host who has been around for years; an ex-rugby coach; opinionated, loud, responsible for jointly bringing down at least three recent Prime Ministers, if not more and with a 19% audience share, is feared by politicians, adored by the very cross-section of the community that he is not, and given a regular platform by all conservative media. He is powerful. No doubt about it. He does things such as using the “n word” on radio or telling a former (woman) Prime Minister that her father would have “died of shame” because of her – and gets away with it.

The Sydney Opera House is a cultural icon. I’ve travelled to many places around the world and there are very few places that compare with Sydney on a nice day, flying in to the airport over Sydney Harbour, the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. Simply stunning. (And I stress ‘on a nice day’ as Sydney has its fair share of foul weather).

So what’s this all about?

The shock-jock – with at least two close personal friends with horses in the race – decided to champion the local racing fraternity’s wish to advertise the race on the sails of the Sydney Opera House.

The Opera House CEO said no, as she was right to do in keeping with the charter of the building.

What did the shock-jock do? He brought the CEO on to his radio program, demanded to know why she did not agree to it, threatened her with going to the Premier of the state, and called for her to be sacked.

All the while, in the face of this outrageous bullying, the Opera House CEO calmly and professionally responded to him. Well done to her.

What happened next is an example of what politicians will do to appease politically powerful conservative media with a far-reaching megaphone.

The State Premier ordered the CEO of the Opera House to allow the advertisements to happen.

This is a World Heritage listed site being used as “the biggest billboard in the country” – to quote the former tourism chief, now Prime Minister (yes, he got in on it too) – for the sake of trying to keep onside with the shock-jock and his supporters, five months out from an election.

I should also mention that the other side of politics were no different, with both their state and federal representatives supporting the Premier’s decision.

The reason given for allowing the horse race to be advertised is because the Opera House sails had previously shown the colours of the ‘Wallabies’ (the Australian rugby team) and celebrated an Ashes Series win. However, as many people pointed out these were to celebrate the achievements of national sporting teams, not to advertise a specific event or activity, and especially not one built on the back of gambling.

What I find fascinating about this from afar is that the politicians said and did all this flying in the face of public opinion.

One survey showed that 80% of people did not agree with the State Premier’s decision to overturn the Opera House CEO. A petition defending the Opera House CEO gathered more than 300,000 signatures in less than a week. Respected figures in the brand, advertising and tourism industry said the Opera House was too important to be used as a billboard.

But none of that appeared to matter to the politicians and their vested interest in keeping the shock-jock and the racing industry happy: the former, because of his megaphone; the latter, because of the $1.5 million the industry poured into the fundraising of the two major political parties in the most recent reportable year.

It concerns me greatly that we have an industry which relies on, and encourages, gambling influencing not only decisions directly relevant to that industry, but also wiling to sell-out a globally recognisable cultural icon.

What’s next and where does it end?