Brit media hit for unbalanced coverage of London toll

May 11, 2004
By Peter Samuel

A journalism research study of reporting on the Central London Congestion Charge (CLCC) toll the finds it "showed an alarming lack of balance." Journalists played up any criticism of the toll, the report says, in what was "overwhelmingly negative reporting." They routinely overlooked support. They also repeated baseless criticisms such as it being "hurriedly" introduced without adequate preparation. In fact its introduction was exceedingly carefully planned and the public had very little trouble adjusting to the toll. The media recklessly threw around predictions of "chaos" and "gridlock" before the scheme. When none of this eventuated the media showed zero contrition, reacting by ignoring the scheme or reporting customer service complaints.

Almost without exception the congestion toll was reported as a reckless gamble, even though it was preceded by extensive professional modeling of traffic impacts, extensive focus group surveys, and the employment of the brightest and the best among the professionals of Britain. The media treated all this expertise in support of the project with disdain.

Another theme that was close to the surface of many reports was that congestion pricing was an "outlandish idea" of a radical politician. Ken Livingstone is certainly radical in some respects, certainly in his anti-Americanism which is positively hysterical, but in his stance toward business and budgets he is quite conservative. Congestion pricing has been almost unanimously advocated by transport economists for half a century. A mainstream idea going back to the late Nobel prize winning economist William Vickrey of Columbia University, and with a long British history too going back to the 1960s and the Buchanan and Smeed reports, was misrepresented by most of the media as strange.

One newspaper the EVENING STANDARD reported an imaginary conspiracy by city officials to make the congestion toll look good by rigging traffic signals before and after introduction of the toll. The conspiracy story ran day after day and was totally without foundation. It appears to have been suggested as a joke by a Conservative Party staffer but the STANDARD newspaper ran with it - in complete disregard of the absence of any evidence.

The evaluation of the reporting titled "Driven to distraction: an analysis of the media's coverage of the introduction of the London congestion charge" was written by Ivan Gabor at the Journalism Research Unit, Goldsmith College, University of London. He gathered all the coverage by ten national newspapers and TV stations (radio wasn't examined).

Gabor writes that his review left him with "an inescapable impression of remorseless negativity."

He summarizes: "One of the great cliches of British journalism is that 'good news is no news' but the degree to which the majority of the media fell upon each and every prediction of chaos, gridlock and 'the end of civilization as we know it' makes for depressing reading. There is hardly a hint, or suggestion, that congestion charging was a rational response to London's ever-worsening traffic congestion - a solution that had long been advocated by leading transport experts. Nor is there any suggestion that the introduction of congestion charging represented an elected politician undertaking a brave and imaginative initiative that had the potential to offer a solution to, arguably, the biggest single problem confronting every major metropolis in the world. The UK media appeared to be reluctant to accept that London's Mayor, Ken Livingstone, had been elected on a mandate to introduce such a scheme, that he had the courage (some would say the folly) to ignore all the merchants of doom and push ahead with its introduction, not because he believed it would be popular, but because he believed there to be no reasonable alternative."

Lacked overt political support from either party

Gabor thinks that one reason for the media's mischaracterization of the toll as "radical" was that fact that neither of the two major political parties - Conservative or Labour - supported it.

"This absence of political support allowed the notion to take root that opposition to the charge was the prevailing consensus and that its supporters were fools, knaves or insane (and frequently all three)." The SUNDAY TIMES called the toll promoter Livingstone "one of the most friendless, least trusted politicians on the planet." Which of course was quite beside the point. Many highly successful politicians have been friendless - George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, George Bush, Charles de Gaulle.

Writes Gabor: "Both nature and journalism abhor a vacuum and, because not a great deal was happening through the many months leading up to the introduction of the charge, the media excelled itself in its invention of potential congestion charge scares and horror stories. These stories fell into three main categories.

"First, there were those stories based on the fears of specific groups and individuals who were mounting campaigns to oppose the charge - such groups included the Smithfield meat porters, the Freight Transport Association and the campaigning actress Samantha Bond.

"Second, there were stories derived from the scheme's critics and sceptics, those who lost no opportunity in predicting doom and gloom. These predictions included, for example, the inevitability of there being gridlock on the edge of the zone, the failure of the charging technology or mass civil disobedience. This category of soothsayers included the RAC Foundation, the Automobile Association and the National Federation of Small Business.

"And third, there were the stories that emanated from the Mayor's political, opponents - in this case the Conservative Group on the London Assembly and some Labour GLA (Greater London Assembly) members, most notably their transport spokesman John Biggs... There was no shortage of individuals and organizations - some hungry for publicity, some genuinely concerned about the issue and some just anxious to make political capital - who were more than happy to make gloomy predictions about the likely negative impact of the charge. Such stories were virtually uncheckable - and the more dire the warning the more likely it was to gain prominence. The seductive attraction of the 'future' for journalists is that it is uncheckable - no one can contradict a forecast about future trends because no one is in a position to say, categorically, that what is predicted will never come to pass."

The key scare stories centred on concerns about:

* administrative chaos as innocent drivers were fined

* technological meltdown,

* extra passengers flooding public transport,

* the unfair penalisation of the lowest paid and key sector workers,

* driving local businesses out of central London,

* the greater use of rat-runs (translation for Americans: through traffic diverting to local streets)

* potential gridlock in local communities

* mass civil disobedience (i.e. non-payment of fines) and

* new opportunities for criminality.

"The consistent repetition of such stories mitigated against the creation of a climate in which a rational debate about how best to organise road charging could take place."

Much of the coverage was vicious. In April 2002 when adoption of the scheme was announced the Evening Standard profiled the Mayor as "a snapping, snarling brute" "voracious" "frightening" "ugly" "raging" and "gripped by paranoia". The 'sanity' issue was raised frequently. The Daily Telegraph talked about "Ken Livingstone's mad-cap plans for London traffic control." The Sunday Times wrote of "madness" imposed by a 'barmy' (Brit slang for crazy) dictator." Motoring columnist, Jeremy Clarkson, wrote about "Ken's barrage of harebrained ideas" and described the Mayor as "insane" and "crazy".

The Daily Telegraph called congestion pricing - though clearly a mainstream free market liberal or libertarian idea in its origins - a "Soviet road scheme."

Gabor suggests the prize for tastelessness go to the Observer newspaper - a supposedly serious publication - whose reporter found a Rabbi whose synagogue was inside the toll zone and who was quoted as saying that "Livingstone is going to cause more damage [to London] than the Germans!"

Perhaps the most encouraging thing is that the media's chronic misreporting - as well documented here by Gabor - never looked likely to derail the introduction of the toll, or apparently even to reduce public support for it. Most Londoners apparently saw the media nonsense as just froth and bubble. TOLLROADSnews 2004-05-11


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