Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after: Our media are polluting the well of public discourse around safer, greener, livable streets

— Dublin City Centre plan is only the latest issue in Ireland where there’s a media issue.

Comment & Analysis: Ring the alarm bells! Brown Thomas and Arnotts say there will be job losses if the new Dublin City Traffic Plan goes ahead! That’s according to a recent Irish Independent article. Except, what the newspaper forgets is any context of the same company making the same warnings over and over again. And it’s a common theme.

...IrishCycle.com's reader-funded journalism won't survive without your help. With over 762,000 views so-far this year, it's not just "avid cyclists" who read this website, but, if you want it to keep going, more support is needed from readers like you. Now, back to the article...

What the article doesn’t tell you is that Brown Thomas and Arnotts, even before they were combined into one group, were some of the strongest objectors of nearly every significant city centre traffic measure.

The Irish Independent’s headline on this — “Brown Thomas and Arnotts operator warns of jobs risk from radical plan to make Dublin city centre ‘car free’” — was on an article late last month. Before the main media onslaught last week.

One reader expressed comfort with the IrishCycle.com headline last Friday: “Dubliners: Do you want to side with a pack of liars or have a better city? It’s your choice.” Most other readers reacting said it was spot on.

I could have just called it misinformation or disinformation, but the ratcheting up of the focus on the plan is not just negative but deeply misleading — it deserved a sharper response. The media focus on the city centre plan since Wednesday last was at a level I have never seen before for transport plans.

This of course is also not an issue confined to Dublin, which is the focus of this article given the recent examples. There are also issues with how changes to our streets are reported in towns around the country and Limerick, Galway, and Cork (from the outside, the media in the latter overall seems to have a more balanced approach).

Another issue is how the national media in Dublin sometimes treats the city as its beat (and then sometimes doesn’t when it’s important for the continuation of coverage). And, in terms of transport generally, the media focuses way more on Dublin City Council than the other three council areas.

Access to the core city centre by car is seen as a national right, while access to clean air by children who live in the inner city or any area of Dublin is hardly ever referenced. It’s worth saying the plan includes maintaining car access.

I should be clear here that there’s a significant difference between a negative article or broadcast news item and a hatchet job with misleading headlines and lacking context or similar issues. The level of coverage on the transport plan made it all that worse.

Some of the flagship RTÉ programmes focused their attack on the Dublin City Council plan. Including the current affairs TV show Prime Time — which is covered in the above-mentioned previous article — and Today with Claire Byrne on RTÉ Radio 1.

Some people dislike radio panel shows where a host of guests battle it out, but I’m a sucker for them. The Gathering every Friday on Byrne’s show is one of my favourites.

Last Friday’s edition was no exception. Byrne opened the item by referring to Eamon Ryan’s “announcement” of the plan (it wasn’t his announcement, it was just reported that way) and, referring to an interview she had just done on air with the master of the Rotunda Hospital, she exclaimed how extraordinary it was that he said he would have to talk to Dublin City Council about how his staff accesses the hospital.

The panel were amazingly supportive of the plan. Some concerns were expressed, but broadly supportive of it. As the Gathering progressed, it was like the panel had read more than the misleading “car ban” headlines and the presenter had not. The power of headlines.

As this website covered in the same above-mentioned article, The Irish Times started the week by saying in an editorial that the plan was great, the next day it published an article with a highly misleading headline and opening paragraph which seemed to spawn copycat approaches in other media outlines, and then on Saturday it published a Q&A style article went a long way to clarify matters, but after the damage was done to public discourse around the project.

Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it; so that when people come to be undeceived, it is too late; the party is over, and the misinformation has had its effect.

That’s to paraphrase Jonathan Swift, and not Mark Twain or others to whom it gets misinterpreted to.

Before the city centre plan misinformation exploded onto the airways and headlines last week, this article was supposed to focus more on coverage of the Malahide pedestrianisation plan.

A headline in The Irish Times read “Malahide pedestrianisation plan to go ahead despite stiff opposition” and a follow-on article’s headline said: “‘It’s filled with drinkers, not shoppers’: tensions flare over Malahide street pedestrianisation plan” and thrust of most of those articles feels like a different planet compared to the reality of the council meeting.

This coverage of Malahide is much like when The Irish Times featured in a front-page story how a Church outside of Howth complained that its parishioners can no longer illegally block footpaths and cycle lanes. After the same local Fingal councillors would not back down, the Irish Times ran a story with the headline “Right to worship being overtaken by right to cycle, church elder claims”.

Both of the newspaper’s New Street articles had a very strange level of focus on the apparently reasonable concerns of the objectors. But none of these articles tallies with the totality of what went on in the council meeting — which this website covered in detail.

My original news report on the approval of the redesign of New Street just went with the headline “Pedestrianisation of New Street in Malahide approved by a majority of Fingal councillors” — the truth is that I wasn’t able to watch the full meeting when it was live and I only, at first, caught little more than the vote.

I heard some councillors speak but it might have misrepresented things if I only included references or quotes to a selected few. That ‘breaking news’ type of article of mine was mainly based on the fact that redesign of the street to fit in with the pedestrianisation which has been in place since Covid was approved by Fingal councillors.

After I read some of the other coverage, I went back and watched the meeting over and over. My 3,000-word article can be read here but as I summed it up in the headline: “Malahide pedestrianisation objectors were listened to, but majority of councillors disagreed”.

The coverage in both written media and online hardly reflected this. The Irish Times article which ran with the headline: “‘It’s filled with drinkers, not shoppers’: tensions flare over Malahide street pedestrianisation plan” was quite shockingly devoid of any context that the newspaper was dismissing our democratic process.

It was debated at the local area committee and then for two hours at Fingal’s monthly meeting (the bulk of the meeting), before there was a clear-cut vote.

Part of the job of journalism is highlighting where those in authority have gone wrong and giving voice to those who have been wronged. But with the Malahide article, even the headline focuses on the perception that the street has been taken over by drinking.

What’s the issue with this? The objector’s suggestions of wider footpaths without pedestrianisation or just having summer pedestrianisation would not solve the issue around drinking. It’s a red herring posing a central issue which is really irrelevant to the central pedestrianisation.

With Malahide, the Irish Independent went with a rather different twist focusing on the positive alone. So, the idea that some kind of halfway house isn’t impossible with coverage just isn’t tenable.

But across the city in Deansgrange, the Independent seems very focused on now painting the cycle route as a community-destroying entity (something like a Borg cube). There’s been a mix of articles but mainly negative and missing any context of what went on before.

The context is that the current plan was a gruelling process where what’s being built now on the Deansgrange Road is the third option proposed and debated at length before councillors approved it. It follows scaremongering first on the option of making the road one-way or using an existing path in the graveyard (both would have kept the parking).

With his satirist media analysis hat on, writer, presenter, and producer Charlie Brooker once described TV news as the world’s longest-running soap opera. He added something about missing an episode and not understanding the plot.

Articles continue to be churned and broadcast segments aired while lacking context, containing spurious arguments dressed up as a concern (usually mixed in with some real concern) and a whole load of negativity towards something because it discommodes motorists. Of course, with little on the reality of how unsafe, unhealthy, inaccessible, and environmentally damaging, our status quo is.

I cannot fully say if it’s seeking clicks, or the ideology of journalists/their editors, or deference to the objectors who contact newspapers, or just sloppiness, or not caring about details. Some will mostly focus on the media’s need to keep advertisers happy and, while advertisers are a core concern of the media, those working in the media are also a reflection of society — that’s not letting them off the hook, but rather to say that an editor or managing editor is just as likely to think about what his or her (non-advertising) associates think.

The truth is likely somewhere in the middle.

But with coverage of projects and plans across Ireland, there are some very questionable decisions being made by journalists and editors which are highly likely to have a toxic impact on public discourse. Much like with larger projects like MetroLink and Dart+, media coverage of the politics of our streets and roads has an impact on the ability of councils to deliver safer and more attractive networks of routes.

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