Monday, 20 June 2011

The press and political will

The Sunday Times article which was the source of a brief quote in my last post, which was taken from the LCC blog, from the Corporation of London's Assistant Director for Planning and Transportation, Iain Simmons, on the high levels of cycling now found in the City of London, is now available more or less in full on Cyclists in the City. That blog also points to an anti-cycling rant in the same edition of the same paper penned by that "national treasure" Jeremy Clarkson. I think the first article talks its subject up, and I am not sure that all the statistics quoted are robust or say what is claimed; nevertheless, it is a basically sensible article on cycling, in the same edition of the same paper as a stupid article on cycling. The writers in a given newspaper do not all have to have the same outlook on a particular subject, but they usually do. This is therefore interesting as it shows The Sunday Times, and probably therefore the whole Murdoch stable of papers, which are very influential, at a turning point in their attitude to cycling.

Because it is the habit of the press to simplify issues, it is characteristic of their attitude to a particular issue or group that when it shifts, it tends not to shift slightly, it flips totally, almost overnight. The Sunday Times is the stable-mate of The Times, a paper that thought it a sensible idea to publish Matthew Parris' notorious article What's smug and deserves to be decapitated? during Christmas 2007, where Conservative MP turned funny-man Parris suggested, in a not very joking tone, that cyclists should be murdered by the stringing of wire across roads at neck height, not realising that similar incidents really have happened. Parris apologised after being engulfed in the storm of protest that he seems to have had no inkling would follow from this, and the Times published a counter-attack from Alison Steed four days later. The Murdoch papers have a history of being virulently anti-cycling. The Sun, I seem to remember, was a leader in attacking as "barmy" ideas for harmonising road crash liability regulations across the EU, proposed by the previous government, that would have helped cyclists. The campaign caused the government to back down.

Until about five years ago the London Evening Standard was also virulently anti-cycling. Cyclists were always "two-wheeled terrorists" who didn't pay "road tax", broke every law in the book, endangered other road users, and needed licensing, in the old Standard. Camden Cycling Campaign started a web-page entitled"four -wheeled terrorists" (now gone)  to try to counter. Then, as cycling in London inched to just a slightly higher level of prominence, particularly following the real terrorist incidents in London, the perspective of the Standard flipped totally and became, by, and large, gushingly positive about the contribution of cycling to London, supporting the bike hire scheme and most other pro-cycling moves.

A couple of examples from last week:

Evening Standard Tuesday 14 June 2011: Now even Lord Tebbit can get on his bike
Cabinet minister Sir George Young, the "Bicyling Baronet", urged parliamentarians to ditch their cars and taxis for two wheels.
"It's fantastic news that the Mayor is finally bringing his bikes to Parliament," said Sir George, Leader of the Commons. "I would encourage all MPs and peers to try them, and if they enjoy cycling, to go on to purchase their own bikes.
There's no faster, cheaper or greener way to get round."
And an editorial paragraph a few pages later commented wryly:
There's a new rack of Boris Bikes outside Westminster: an unrivalled opportunity, them, for MPs to lead the way in adopting this health, environmentally friendly means of getting to work. We look forward to seeing Communities Secretary Eric pickles leading the way.
[Pickles is famously obsese. He is also no friend of the environment: one of his first acts after being appointed to his current post was to nod through the appalling Brent Cross Cricklewood development proposals, against all the guidelines laid down by his own department. Mind you, anyone who is attacked by Alan Sugar* can't be all bad.]


Campaigners warned people could be discouraged from cycling to the Games. Jim Walker, chairman of the London 2012 active travel advisory group, said he wanted to see people encouraged to cycle or walk rather than having their memories soured by being stuck in traffic.
And, again, an editorial comment on the story over the page. The Standard thundered:
First it was black cabs; now we are told that cyclists too will be banned from using the Olympic lanes. This is a nonsense. The games were supposed to promote grassroots sport and exercise. International Olympic Committee bureaucrats might prefer near-empty roads. London doesn't work like that. We will get them to the Games on time. But they should share roads with cyclists.
Now here they have gone off a bit at a tangent, as the Olympic lanes are in the middle of the roads, so cyclists wouldn't generally want to use them anyway. But it's all part of the Standard's new found unstoppable enthusiasm for cycling in London, as any search of their website for "cycling" will show. Their past violent hostility to those on two wheels is totally effaced and forgotten.

In the internet age the influence of the printed news media is not as great as it was. But the attitudes of the papers are still a good bellwether of wider opinion, and of political will. Here I come to the point of my post. As cycle campaigners, we are constantly wondering, "How can we generate the political will to put into place the measures that we know will achieve a mass cycling culture?" In the UK at the moment, this seems a world away. But, like the attitudes of the papers, political will tends to be all-or-nothing. Like trying to push a vast ship down a slipway into the water, once it goes, it goes.

Enrique Peñalosa, former Mayor of Bogotá, is a man who knows a thing or two about politics. He said recently:
Politicians love to hear from constituents, especially if they think there are votes in it for them - even more so if they think there are lots of votes in it for them. Political will is like a tea spoon floating on a cup of coffee - cyclists, constituents, campaigning groups must lobby their politicians drop by drop by drop till that spoon sinks: until the political will to equalize the city is there.
So that's it. Political will is like a teaspoon floating in coffee. So put the pot on, and write a letter to your MP.

*Alan Sugar said Eric Pickles was "another pointless politician doing yet another menial administrative job that could be done by anyone that has been educated in any vague sort of half coherent English" – which Sugar clearly hasn't been, as it should be "anyone who has been educated..."

1 comment:

  1. Good post, although I think the change of heart of the Standard is also due to its change of ownership, it was owned by Associated Newspapers (Daily Mail, Metro...) until 2009, when it was bought by Lebedev (ex-KGB oligarch, so not sure it is a great improvement), who installed his son as chairman.