The BBC – cycling’s friend or foe?

Chris Boardman on BBC Breakfast
Sam Jones's picture

The BBC – cycling’s friend or foe?

This week, BBC Breakfast ran its series 'Cycling - The Road Ahead'. CTC questions its worth and whether more harm than good was done.

Prior to its proposed week of coverage on cycling, the BBC approached CTC for an interview opportunity, and also to pick our brains for an article on safety issues.

They shared their schedule which was as follows:

  • Facilitating relationships between road users
  • Infrastructure
  • Safety
  • Technology and its role in safety
  • Headphones

While headphone use appeared to be the odd one out, the absence of helmets as a topic suggested that this feature could well lead to a sensible discussion on cycling. Unfortunately, as anyone knows who has followed the coverage this week, whether via broadcast or social media, this has sadly not been the case.

Chris Boardman opened Monday’s show on cycle safety, and made a number of excellent points, which he elaborated on further online. Unfortunately, such messaging was lost in the resulting media furore, as Boardman had declined to wear a helmet and moreover said he would not let his daughter cycle in an urban environment.

CTC sought to address such points through our briefing on helmets, Our CEO Paul Tuohy contributed to an item in the Daily Mail and spoke on BBC 5Live Drive (from 25.39). However, the tone had already been set, public outrage had been fed and demanded more.

The ensuing stories throughout the week have largely been disappointing and more fuel for the inexplicable rage which grips the British people when talking about cycling and cyclists in general. Insurance, road tax, registration plates…the list goes on and, through their social media platforms, the BBC has given misconstrued views room to breathe and breed, without seeking to challenge or address these issues.

This has very much been a missed opportunity for the BBC to broadcast a meaningful debate that might have corrected a general public which frequently and sadly is misinformed about cycling. There have been some high points, such as the lorry drivers who began to realise that cyclists need space or New York transport planner Janette Sadik-Khan, who explained a safer city needs cycle tracks, but generally these have been lost in the mire ever since the BBC seemingly valued contention over information.

The Twitterati clearly subscribed to the view that it was the BBC’s purpose to generate coverage for coverage's sake. On Wednesday evening, when author and Bike Biz editor Carlton Reid tweeted a spoof leak of BBC Breakfast’s running order, it was widely believed to be true.

Generating interest and engagement is clearly in the interest for any media source, whether it is bad or good. When CTC’s Roger Geffen took to a tandem, ostensibly to discuss headphones for Wednesday’s show, he ended up spending an hour discussing the wider and more important issues of cycle safety with Richard Westcott, BBC Transport correspondent. Headphones were touched upon briefly and then dismissed as key issues were discussed. As a result, Wednesday’s show featured a 30-second soundbite from CTC on headphones.

There is always this risk when engaging with the media, but it is all the more frustrating when there is a clear split of priorities within the BBC. BBC Online News published several pieces throughout the week, one of which investigates in detail the Breakfast show’s topics and ultimately dismisses many of the concerns, while another makes a point which has been missing throughout the week’s broadcasts: cycling in Britain is not as dangerous as it is perceived to be.

In my opinion, as a cycling campaigner, we have witnessed a week of sensationalism over sense from BBC Breakfast. This can only be disappointing when the Department for Transport publishes a report recognising investment in cycling’s huge economic, social and health benefits, and Transport for London also produces a broadly sound Cycle Safety Action Plan - both to receive a full CTC write-up - that makes sensible suggestions for limiting death and injury on London's roads.

Ultimately, it is not the media which will decide the future of UK cycling. This responsibility lies in the hands of our government. On 27 November the Deputy Prime Minister is expected to launch the nation’s Cycling Delivery Plan, and the Chancellor releases his Autumn Statement on 3 December. These are the dates which will determine where cycling goes next – let us just hope the Government will err on the side of good sense and gets Britain cycling.

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Comments

In the video to which Chris Boardman refers, it is interesting to see that not only is no-one wearing a helmet, but hi-vis or 'cycle' clothing of any kind is conspicuously absent, which is in complete contrast to what you would expect to see on any given day in a major city in the UK. Being able to jump on and off a bike without spending fifteen minutes changing before and after work makes a journey by bike even more appealing, especially if it is a short one.

Sadly Billy Turnbull invited a discussion on helmets by pointing out that Chris Boardman had chosen not to wear a helmet. Since this was the last word on the first day, it could not have been any more influential. Given the BBC's past form, I assume this was intentional.

Unfortunately politicians pick up on the majority sentiment - which is anti cycling- and tend to think in terms of votes. Hence they (with many honourable exceptions) are generally not prepared to stick their necks out to promote pro-cycling policies.

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