Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Letter to the BBC over 'I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue'

Dear Sir,

I am writing to complain about a joke that was made in the I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue broadcast on Saturday 27 December, near the beginning, between 1’33 and 1’48” on the iPlayer recording. Part of Jack Dee’s introduction, this attack on ‘cyclists’, implying they do not know the Highway Code, was offensive, cheap and unpleasant humour to me, and to many others who I know.

I am sure you will claim that Clue is an ‘irreverent’ programme where attacks or jibes are meted out without fear or favour to all sorts of groups. Yes, the jokes following this ‘got at’ steam railway enthusiasts and UKIP supporters. But the joke against cyclists was unpleasant in a way that these, and similar jokes in the show, are not. They do not have the hostile majority-minority power-play implied that the joke against ‘cyclists’ did.

The background to this is that around 120 cyclists are killed on the roads of the UK every year and about 3,000 seriously injured (a figure that has been increasing in recent years). This is a bad record by international standards – cycling on the UK's roads is at least twice as dangerous as in some neighbouring European countries. According to statistics of police analysis of these incidents, in most cases the killed or seriously injured cyclist was not at fault and was cycling correctly and legally, and therefore most of these cyclist deaths and injuries are due to bad, illegal, and dangerous driving: that is, drivers wantonly ignoring the Highway Code. Yes, there are infringements of the Highway Code by all user-groups, but motorists have far more power to do damage than cyclists, who will in general only put themselves at risk by behaving badly on the roads. The issue is therefore the dangerous and irresponsible behaviour by those in control of powerful motor vehicles.

Unfortunately our society normalises many aspects of this behaviour, particularly the crime of speeding, and there is a mentality amongst many motorists that they have superior rights to the road compared to non-motorised users, and a culture of victimising cyclists with socially-widespread and acceptable inaccurate, prejudiced claims about their behaviour. It is right into this trap that the Clue joke about the Highway Code fell.

This kind of humour would be totally unacceptable when applied against religious or racial minorities, or other groups, such as the disabled. Cyclists have to put up with it as normality. It helps to sustain a set of attitudes in the public and official bodies that result in cases, such as the recent one of Michael Mason, a cyclist killed by a motorist on Regent Street (very close to Broadcasting house) where the driver who killed him has received absolutely no punishment despite effectively admitting full guilt and responsibility. The mythology of blaming and victimisation of cyclists excuses these deaths to our society and makes acceptable the fact that no-one is held responsible for road deaths in cases such as these, or  if they are, they typically receive derisory punishment.

I expect many BBC employees cycle to work on Portland Place and Regent Street, where Michael Mason, an experienced and expert cyclist, was killed, through no fault of his own. I wonder if any cycling BBC employees had the ‘Highway Code’ joke run past them before it was broadcast. I expect the answer is no, as if it had been, the scriptwriters would have realised their error. This was an offensive joke and should not have been broadcast. This was a favourite Radio 4 programme of mine, but I expect I will not be able to enjoy it in the same way again.

I hope these thoughts have explained to you why the BBC should apologise to the cycling community, and cycling organisations, for this error of judgement.


David Arditti


  1. Thanks for writing in to them David - as you know so have CTC and Graham Paul Smith.

    Robert Davis, Chair RDRF

  2. I think the critical point to make in these types of situation is that the comments (I admit I haven't bothered to analyse this particular drivel) are essentially incendiary, as opposed to just "offensive".

    I think offending people is just fine - expressing attitudes/prejudices associated with endangering others is not. There is a difference.

    RD, Chair RDRF.

  3. David, with all due respect, have a laugh at yourself mate. Along with the audience on the night who seemed to agree with Dee. I cycle, drive a small hatchback, and work behind the wheel of a Lorry for 10 hours a day, so I see a lot of things that happen on the roads. But between those 3 forms of transport, guess from which group the VAST majority of footpath riders and wrong-way-up-the-streeters are drawn in my experience?

    1. I think you miss the point. You talk about footpath riding. Just 2 per cent of pedestrian injuries on pavements involve cyclists, the other 98 per cent involve motor vehicles. It's consequences that count. Anyway, pavement cycling and wrong-way cycling are a consequence of bad street design and the danger faced by cyclists when they stick within the law, and of how it is often safer for them to break it. They are symptoms of an anti-cycling system, not characteristics of cyclists as people. The problem with this humour is that it attacks people, and it attacks people doing a relatively harmless thing who are put in danger themselves by a system. As Bob Davis says, it is incendiary; it makes the problems worse, so it matters.

  4. Sorry to say David, but I didn't miss the point. It was a joke, and as fellow cyclist I found it funny. However it is completely irresponsible of you to blame the lack of infrastructure for Cyclists making choices that break the Law, put themselves and the Public in danger, and make themselves the butt of jokes. This only creates more of a divide.

    1. If you go to somewhere that caters properly for cycling, like the Netherlands or Denmark, you will find it impossible to find cyclists on the pavement. They do not do this where safe and efficient dedicated cycle facilities are provided. In your world view since you seem to disregard the real reasons for behaviour it seems you would have to regard British cyclists as just 'bad people'.

      You other points are invalid because cyclists who break the law in the ways you mention do not 'put the public in danger', as I pointed out with statistical evidence above, they do not put themselves in danger (none of the cyclists killed in London in the last few years has been cycling on the pavement, they were all on the road), and they do not 'make themselves the butt of jokes'. If you believe these things you have fully bought into cycle-hate yourself.

    2. British cyclists eh? But hang on. Is it being on a bicycle that makes people break the law or show inconsiderate behaviour? If so, but you consider cycling a legitimate activity (*there's* a series of blog posts in itself), you need, as David points out, good infrastructure to stop them doing it, because they're not going to be able to help it otherwise. In Japan, though, it has been accepted for many years that everyone cycles on the footway, despite it being illegal. The system works there, at least for shoppers and short distance commuters. So it must be the way the law is perceived. And that can only mean that the problem lies with being British. That's not a big surprise: any sufficiently large subset of a population will tend to resemble the whole: people who wear red sweaters, riders of bicycles, or haters of cyclists. Pots and kettles etc. Sayounara.

      Anonymous II

  5. Steve Coogan's article about Top Gear humour seems to touch on very similar points.

    "There is a strong ethical dimension to the best comedy. Not only does it avoid reinforcing prejudices, it actively challenges them. "


  6. And tonight they used 'red-green colour blindness - we call them cyclists'.
    There was another example on Clue a few weeks ago.
    I think it was the same old joke stolen from TopGear
    doesn't seem to contain responses.