Wednesday 22 October 2014

True lies

Yesterday’s (21 October) edition of the London  Evening Standard newspaper displayed an element of the schizophrenia which seems to have overtaken it on the issue of cycling and the Mayor’s proposals for a North-South and an East-West “superhighway”, the latter being dubbed “Crossrail for Bikes” in the media.

On Page 6 of the West End Final edition is this article, under the byline of Matthew Beard, Transport Correspondent.

Spot the footnote, directing you to the editorial comment on page 14:

So, as a corporate policy, the Standard has evidently decided to come out in favour of the proposals.  Good for them, I’m pleased to see it.  They join the ranks of many large companies and public sector bodies including NHS trusts, Universities etc which have so far voiced their support.  They have also reported on this corporate support, and most tellingly they have recently reported the findings of a professional polling organisation, Yougov, to the effect that the superhighways have substantial majority support among Londoners of all classes, races, gender, political leanings and ages.

So there has been some positive and supportive coverage.  There has, of course, also been some comment or readers’ letters which indicate a spectrum of opinion, and it would be remiss of the Standard not to reflect this, although I do suspect that the Letters Editor was revealing a fine sense of irony in choosing this one:


There is evidently some divergence of opinion among the Standard’s staff journalists on this matter though:  Mentions in Dispatches should go in particular to Ross Lydall, but also to his colleagues Andrew Neather (@HerneHillAndy), Rosamund Urwin and others.  On the other hand, there is Matthew Beard, transport correspondent.  His reporting on the proposals has been relentlessly negative.

An earlier example is this, from a month ago:

Note the headline – car journeys to take 16 minutes longer.  No mention that this is a maximum in very isolated circumstances.  The body copy makes no mention anywhere that the average delays are very considerably less than this, or that in fact there will be a few instances where journey times actually reduce.  It makes no mention of the fact that the estimates take no account of the positive effects on congestion which might be expected from any increased uptake in cycling by individuals who might previously have driven.

In other pieces, he has reported, apparently uncritically, claims and assertions made in a shadowy “Press Briefing” which I understand Canary Wharf Group has finally admitted to being behind.  This document is loaded with unevidenced assertions, exaggerations, and some downright lies.  Most of them are such daft and transparent fakes that no kid preparing a GCSE geography project, let alone an informed adult journalist, could really take them seriously

And now Beard is expounding on the City’s threat to block the proposals.  Up to a point, this is true:  there is indeed a report which states that the proposals are heavily biased towards cycling.  It does indeed contain an explicit threat, in noting that the routes would partly occupy streets under the City’s, as opposed to TfL’s management – Castle Baynard Street would be made access-only for motor vehicles and shared with the superhighway to bypass Upper Thames Street.  In my view the report is highly partisan and highlights the few cases where pedestrians may be disadvantaged while glossing over the many where they are substantially neutral or indeed better off than before.  Mark Teasure  has analysed their text in some detail here.

But, on the other hand, the report is a bit old.  It was issued as part of the agenda papers for the City’s Planning & Transportation Committee meeting held on October 14th.  The report has been available to the public on the City’s website for at least two weeks now, so it is hardly news, is it?

It is also not the views of the City of London Corporation, as claimed in the article, which are reported here.  Semantic distinction perhaps, but the City of London Corporation is the assembly of elected representatives, Aldermen and Common Council Members.  The report was prepared by their employees, officers in the Planning department.  Reports can be adopted, amended or rejected by the councillors participating in the relevant committee after they have discussed them in committee, normally in front of the public.  While there are many City officials who are sympathetic to cycling – not perhaps gung-ho advocates, but at least balanced and broadly supportive – there are others, especially among its directorate, who are openly hostile, and who behave as though it is they, and not councillors, who run the city.

There may be some element of truth in that. I tend to think of councillors as rather fuddy-duddy but they all have long experience in practising liberal professions (lawyers, accountants, chartered surveyors etc) and the one thing they are assuredly not is stupid.  However as I consider myself to have a first-division educational and professional background and yet my self-confidence somewhat evaporates in the face of expertise which I don’t personally have, I can imagine it is not always easy for them to avoid being blinded by science.

No matter, although I was not there personally, I have heard reports from people who were, that the councillors on the P&T Committee adopted a rather more moderate and conciliatory tone than the report suggests.  They downplayed the threat of non-co-operation, and instead focussed on the detail around matters such as addressing specific concerns about crossing times, in the spirit of aiming to resolve those concerns so that the proposals can be built. That’s hardly the same message at all, is it?

The BBC “Today” presenter John Humphries once said that he approaches any interview with a politician thinking, constantly, as he asks questions and listens to the answers, “Why is this bastard lying to me?”.  In this case, it seems to me that perhaps the tables are turned.

1 comment:

  1. Clearly Matthew Beard has been fed information from within or very close to Transport for London, at several points he had well informed critical articles before the official release of information from TfL. He is a good journalist and he has not revealed his sources despite being questioned by other journalists.
    I am pleased that the Evening Standard has taken an editorial decision to write articles in favour of the Superhighway schemes.
    It seems that the Mayor needs to get a grip of the organisation he leads. If there are people from TfL briefing against plans to deliver on the Mayor's electoral promises then he needs to show who is in charge and sort them out.