‘Piano wire’ article not intended to be taken seriously, says national newspaper

Rod Liddle writes for the Sunday Times
The Sunday Times columnist, Rod Liddle caused outrage with his 'piano wire' article
The Sunday Times has apologised for publishing an article described by Cycling UK as 'inflammatory' and 'in seriously poor taste'.

A national newspaper says an article by controversial columnist Rod Liddle, in which he says he was tempted to stretch piano wire at neck height to catch cyclists "wasn’t intended to be taken seriously."

The article, published in the Sunday Times last month (May 2020), prompted Cycling UK to issue a formal complaint to the paper.

It argued the article was “inflammatory, in seriously poor taste, and implies that a seriously dangerous and criminal act is somehow an acceptable course of conduct.” 

Although the Sunday Times published a letter from the charity complaining about the article on its letters page, it has also now apologised for any offence caused and suggested Mr Liddle’s piano wire comment was meant to have been taken as satire.

We're sorry it's caused offence, and we understand your concerns

Statement from The Sunday Times

In a statement it said: “Rod Liddle is one voice among many on the paper. He's often satirical and his remark wasn't intended to be taken seriously.

“We're sorry it's caused offence, and we understand your concerns: this is why we published Cycling UK's forthright and highly critical letter - which was, in fact, substantially longer than the passage it complained about - on our pages.

“We didn't hide from your criticism: we gave it a platform. And we intend to take it on board when editing future editions.”

It also made the point that The Sunday Times's coverage of cycling “has been, and remains, overwhelmingly positive”, pointing to a recent article by former Top Gear presenter James May who was pressing the government to buy everyone in the UK a bicycle.

It said that was “just the latest in scores of positive pieces: and our sister paper The Times has actively campaigned to make cities safer for cyclists.”

The apology for any offence caused rings hollow, as it fails to address the potential consequences of Liddle’s words

Duncan Dollimore, head of campaigns

Duncan Dollimore, Cycling UK’s head of campaigns, said the paper's apology rang hollow.

“Print what you like, as long as the columnist was being satirical. That seems to be the ‘Liddle defence’ for implying that a seriously dangerous and criminal act is somehow acceptable," he said.

"But satire is a weapon best used by the powerless to mock the powerful, and there’s a time when satire ends and comments about how tempting it is to assault someone sound like encouragement to do so.

"It’s therefore disappointing that the Sunday Times hasn’t acknowledged that this line has been crossed. The apology for any offence caused rings hollow, as it fails to address the potential consequences of Liddle’s words or provide assurance that any lessons have been learned.”

It’s not the first time Mr Liddle has taken a sideswipe at cyclists.

In an article in December 2016, he remarked that he regularly sought to ‘car door’ them when taking a taxi in London.

Cycling UK’s subsequent complaint was dismissed at the time, with the paper saying no retract nor apology was necessary as Mr Liddle was using ‘heavy irony’.

In December 2007, columnist Matthew Parris wrote in the Sunday Times’s sister paper, The Times: “A festive custom we could do worse than foster would be stringing piano wire across country lanes to decapitate cyclists.”

Cycling UK (then CTC) and many other members of the public wrote in complaint of Mr Parris’s suggestion, and following public pressure he issued an apology.

Stretching piano wire, or similar type obstacles across the highway is not only a specific offence under section 162 of the Highways Act 1980, but also potentially attempted grievous bodily harm with intent.

Police in West Yorkshire are currently investigating the latter offence, following an incident earlier this year when a man cycling with his son was injured after wire was deliberately placed across a path with the aim of causing injury.

Similar incidents have left other cyclists with potentially life threatening injuries in Stretford, Greater Manchester.

And in the immediate aftermath of Mr Liddle’s latest column, "wire traps and logs were found blocking trails and paths in Swansea and Cardiff" over the May bank holiday weekend, resulting in the injury of Neil Nunnerley (47), who had to visit to A&E consequently on Saturday, 23 May, Walesonline reported.