COMMENT & ANALYSIS: “If you’re concerned about a perceived lack of balance, well, you’re going to have to be concerned about it because we’re not going to have a false equivalence on this particular issue,” said Matt Cooper, presenter of the Last Word on Today FM. He was talking recently about covering anti-vaccine campaigner Andrew Wakefield. Why is the issue of cycling safety treated so differently?
Why are the equivalent crackpots allowed to rant about cycling and against proven safety measures?
The media generally does not just have a false balance problem when it comes to vaccines. Climate change is probably the most worrying example — and that “balance” has informed public discussion and added to denial or denial that humans have caused climate change, despite the vast bulk of the science saying otherwise.
It makes it harder to write this because Matt Cooper genuinely seems to care about cycling safety, unlike a lot of other radio hosts. But his show’s false balance from contrarians and the ill-informed or hate-filled text messages, is just as bad as George Hook’s self-proclaimed cycling hating and his show adding balance by getting pro-cycling people to speak to him.
Cooper covered cycling the past two evenings on the Last Word — first focusing on “weekend cycling”, referring to leisure cycling, and then “city cycling”. He said weekend cyclists are more likely to be on winding roads and dual carriageways, where speeds are higher.
He was a bit shocked by the reaction from some cyclists online to the weekend angle. A second show was done on urban cycling.
Cooper’s distinctions annoyed people for a few reasons: It’s not just leisure cyclists who are killed on rural roads (a child was killed cycling to school in a rural area last year), and it’s not just people who cycle in rural areas who have to contend to with speeding motorists (speeding is epidemic in many urban areas).
And dangerous overtaking by motorists is from the same mindset, it’s the same type of law broken currently, and a proposed improved law outlining a minimum passing distance could help in both urban and rural areas.
On day one, Cooper starts by asking: “What can be done to make our roads safer for cyclists? And the reason I’m asking this is that last year 10 people were killed off their bikes on Irish roads, so-far this year — and we’re only in May — it’s been 8 [killed].” It started off well with Cooper referring to a developing anti-cycling hysteria and asking his first two guests about this.
The first guest, Richard Oakley, editor of the daily edition of the Times Ireland edition, refers to the “us and them” type of debate which happens and Oakley says the “heat needs to be taken out of the debate” — he says it’s safety issue and that cycling is actually good for everyone because its good for health and reduces traffic etc. Great so-far.
The second guest was Conor Faughnan, of the AA — the choice of him along brings up its fair share of questions for many cyclists. Why is a spokesman from motoring lobby and insurance group so often rolled out by the media to talk about cycling? On Monday’s radio item focused on the 8 cycling deaths in the first few months of the year, Faughnan said that cyclists can’t always act the victim.
Faughnan also said some very reasonable things, but, as we’ve written before, he is great at playing the long game and mixing the reasonable and the daft in the one breath.
Part of the long game is coming across as reasonable. When you are mostly reasonable, it’s then easier to say daft things. He’s all for safety, but practical measures like the Liffey Cycle Route, lower speed limits, or a minimum passing distance law? The lines get blurred quickly. The AA actually called for higher speed limits in urban areas.
Faughnan is a master at his job — like the now moderated climate change denying message, he points there is a problem but he just disagrees with the solutions. In this case, he was did not have to disagree with much because he was bizarrely billed as the cyclists’ friend. It doesn’t matter that he cycles, when he lobbies against safety measures.
On the second day, the pro-cycling “side” is voiced by Damien O’Tuama of Cyclist.ie, who outlines danger of speed and an overview of the approach taken by Dutch and Danish governments in protecting people who cycle by investing in cycling.
The false balance comes on day one from John McGurk, a conservative contrarian, and, on day two, by Cllr Nial Ring, a serial objector to cycling projects, including on mental health grounds.
False balance also comes from text messages, including a stark unverifiable claim trying to link an individual’s assault-like behaviour with his mode of transport. For some, the misbehaver of some cyclists seems to mean innocent cyclists should not be afford protection against motorists — basically a group of people should all be treated the some because some of them break the law.
Another version of this is cycling should be invested in but only after the current cyclists behave — this is something Cllr Nial Ring has pushed with his focus on law breaking by cyclists in the content of investment in cycling. Imagine if the same approach was taken for motorists? No more motorways until motorists stop speeding, running lights, and killing people.
John McGurk started straight off assigning blame to cyclists “a lot of these accidents happens with cyclists coming inside of turning motorists”, when a lot of such collisions actually happen when motorists overtake bicycles and quickly turn to the left.
McGurk wants an “extra burden on cyclists”, implies lights are not already a legal requirement and wants mandatory insurance and high-visibility — so, we get loads of things bundled together and little time to debate the benefits of anything. I’m sure insurance will be great stopping deaths on our roads. And we’re sure there’s evidence of this somewhere, right?
Councillor Nial Ring claims Dublin City Council are “literally driving motorists of the road” — but this doesn’t prompt any interject by Cooper as any way distasteful when at least some of the people on bicycles who are killed are literally driven the road (using the proper meaning of literally).
Ring then uses the idea that more people drive into Dublin City than the number who cycling as a reason not to invest in cycling and he is allowed to rant for what seems like a long time about the Liffey Cycle Route Option 7, the safer option for a route which will protect people on one of the city’s worst roads for cycling on currently.
Ring also tries to use economic data against investing in cycling safety measures. This is despite the evidence which shows cycling is good for the economy. Ring selectedly quotes from per trip shopping spending of in Dublin City Centre when surveys from DIT and elsewhere show that cyclists spend as nearly much or more than motorists because they make more visits per month.
Was this all about cycling safety? It’s hard to remember. Lets read out some random hate-filled text messages and then read out one from a person who got knocked off their bike… because, that’s balance. Isn’t it?
Cycling might not be a cure for everything, it might not be a vaccine, but it is proven help with a range of health issues linked to inactivity, improve the people-moving capacity of our urban areas, increase mobility, and reduce noise, air and climate change emissions. The heat needs to be taken out of the debate, but, sadly, radio shows keep pouring petrol on the flames.
Cooper seems to have decided that the risk is not worth cycling. Studies show that the health benefits of cycling outweighs the risks (both the risk of a collision and the risk from pollution), but for many reasons loads of people will continue to cycle before all of our roads are redesigned. In the meanwhile, can radio hosts please lay off the fake balance and the outraged, hate-filled text messages?
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