The BBC’s 'War on Britain’s Roads': how should we respond?

The BBC's 'War on Britain's Roads' programme

The BBC’s 'War on Britain’s Roads': how should we respond?

Now that the programme has been broadcast - with some important edits compared with the preview version - Roger Geffen advises against simply venting anger and instead suggests some positive outcomes.

If you’ve now seen the broadcast of the 'War on Britain’s roads', it will doubtless be evident why my preview blog said I didn’t think it was entirely bad.  And at the same time, the worst of it was truly awful.

Inspiring integrity

But first, the positives. I’m sure you’ll agree that the clips of the interview with Cynthia Barlow were tremendously powerful.  Cynthia is a woman of remarkable strength, passion and integrity, and it is a privilege to work with her on lorry safety.  It is very much thanks to her efforts that organisations like the Freight Transport Association and Mineral Products Association are now taking cycle safety seriously – as are companies like Cemex (the company whose lorry killed her daughter).

I only wish the programme had mentioned that Cynthia’s campaigning has to led her becoming Chair of road crash victims charity RoadPeace. RoadPeace do fantastic work, both in providing peer-to-peer self-help support for road crash victims, and in campaigning for the police, prosecutors and the courts to take a much tougher approach to bad driving. They will be key partners in CTC’s Stop Smidsy campaign as it evolves in the months ahead.

Sickening distortion

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there were extracts from a professionally-made film of cycle couriers engaged in what seems to have been an extreme, “alley-cat" race, filmed as long ago as 2006. The programme introduced this with some voice-over commentary which portrays this as common courier behaviour, even suggesting (indirectly) that this reflects the habitual love of red-light-jumping among many cyclists.

Would anyone dream of showing footage of boy racers doing 150mph on the M25 and preface this by saying, 'Not all drivers break the speed limit'?

My blog posting yesterday has already stressed CTC’s long-standing view that all road users – drivers and cyclists alike – should respect the rules of the road and the safety of others.  Equally, as AA President Edmund King has said, it is entirely counter-productive to cyclists’ safety to whip up this “us and them” narrative of tribal warfare. Drivers and cyclists are often the same people, after all 94% of CTC members do have driving licences.

I also pointed out yesterday that – with the notable exception of Cynthia – the combatants in the BBC’s 'war' are all battle-hardened males, with the cyclists all wearing helmets and cameras. This is hardly the way to support the promotion of cycling as a safe and normal activity, which people of any age, gender or background can do in whatever clothing they would normally wear.

The most serious breach of the BBC’s code

It seems that the programme-makers made some late edits to the film, no doubt prompted by criticism of the preview version of the programme from ourselves and others, including Ian Austin MP, co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group (he has also written to Tony Hall the BBC’s director general designate). These criticisms have appeared in the Guardian, Independent and the cycle trade journal BikeBiz.  Unsurprisingly, the final version omits some of the more blatant examples of apparent infringements of the BBC’s editorial guidelines.

Yet they have made surprisingly little change to the presentation of the 'alley-cat' sequence, which has the main focus of most of criticisms of the programme to date. In the final version, it was introduced with the words “Not all cyclists jump red lights, but for some, it's become a habit" . These words were clearly intended to suggest that most cyclists *do* jump red lights, when in reality there are plenty of cyclists who get heartily sick of ‘red-light-jumpers’ (RLJ’s) on our roads. 

However the most serious criticism is that, in a programme mostly based on “user generated content” from ordinary helmet-camera-using cyclists, the film-makers fail to explain that the alley-cat sequence was filmed by a professional American film-maker, Lucas Brunelle, and subsequently released commercially. Far from being symptomatic of the habits of some cyclists, this footage isn’t even normal courier behaviour - illegal and highly irresponsible alleycat races like this are extremely rare.  Would anyone dream of broadcasting images of a staged 150mph race on the M25 – or boy-racers charging round a housing estate – and preface this footage with the words “not all drivers break the speed limit?”

It appears that this wasn’t clear to the participants filmed in the programme. David Brennan (aka Magnatom) is one of several of the individuals featured in the programme, who is shown giving his shocked reaction to the alley-cat racing. However he has since confirmed to BikeBiz that he was unaware of the origins of this material. So he and others may well have valid complaints under section 6 of the BBC’s editorial guidelines (on “Fairness, contributors and informed consent”).

Don’t get angry – make a difference!

At this point, I was going to suggest how other individual cyclists could respond, by listing a number of apparent breaches of the BBC’s broadcast guidelines. However the film-makers edit out all the remaining comments which we felt were in breach of those guidelines. So I will leave an outline of those changes for a separate posting.

We need to remember that the BBC’s complaints department is very accustomed to shrugging off criticism, e.g. of Top Gear.  We should also be aware that we are being set up to confirm to the very stereotype shown in the film.  “Angry lawless cyclists respond angrily to TV programme showing them acting angrily and lawlessly!” – the programme-makers have effectively scripted our response for us already.  We must therefore do something different.

My advice is: it’s not worth complaining about whatever made you angry.  By all means channel your energies into anything you think breaches the BBC’s editorial guidelines – and if you think we’ve missed anything, let us know via the CTC Forum. However, with the exception of some of the individuals who took part, it may now be best to focus our attention on the alley-cat footage, and relating complaints to section 3.4 of the BBC’s editorial guidelines.

Then conclude your correspondence with an appeal to the BBC to make amends by broadcasting a really positive programme about cycling! Ask them to document the rise in popularity of cycling – particularly after the Olympics – and to talk about what can be done (and is already being done in some cases) to enable and encourage a lot more people to cycle in far greater safety, both here and in other European countries. Urge them to show what voluntary and community groups, local authorities and others are doing to enable people of every age, gender and background to take up cycling.  Demand that they show how women and teenagers (including from ethnic minority backgrounds), health patients, people with disabilities and those from other disadvantaged groups and communities are having their lives changed by discovering cycling.  And how much safer, healthier, wealthier and more civilised our society would be if more people were to do so.

Chris Boardman has tweeted that he’d “like to make a program on what cycling CAN be in this country, any takers...?”, and Ian Austin MP has echoed his sentiments. Other sections of the media – notably the Times – have been providing fantastic support for the cause of encouraging more and safer cycling.  Let us now call on the BBC to do likewise.


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