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(London, UK) Damning report on media coverage of congestion charging


Driven to distraction: Damning report on media coverage of congestion
Published: 03 May 2004 01:00

The media failed to provide balanced and fair coverage of the
introduction of the London congestion charge in February 2003,
according to a report published today (3 May)*. The report reveals
the results of research undertaken by Professor Ivor Gaber of the
Unit for Journalism Research based at Goldsmiths College, University
of London and is based on a comprehensive analysis of national and
London-wide media coverage of the introduction of the scheme between
1 January 2002 and 31 May 2003.

In the report, Professor Gaber says that the range and quality of
Britain's national press is widely admired; however it is also seen
as having a particularly negative standpoint – apparent in its
attitudes towards such phenomena as sporting achievements,
celebrities and politicians. "But even by British standards", says
Gaber, "the reporting of congestion charging was seriously biased;
most newspapers did a grave disservice to their readers who, on an
important issue such as this, had a right to expect to receive
information in a relatively straightforward manner. In this modest
task, the majority of the press failed themselves, and, more
importantly failed their readers too."

The majority of the media took the view that the congestion charging
scheme was a massive gamble for which London, and its Mayor, were ill-
prepared. The report highlights in particular the shortcomings of the
London Evening Standard's coverage, which as the only paid-for London-
wide daily paper, aims to be an agenda setter for national news, and
has a particular duty to report the capital's news in a responsible

The report analyses the Standard's coverage in some detail. It finds
that the paper was largely responsible for originating and sustaining
the notion, never substantiated, that there was a 'secret plot' to
fix London's traffic lights in 2002. The 'plot' allegedly involved
fixing the lights to increase traffic congestion in the run-up to the
scheme and then 'unfixing' them when the scheme began in order to
make it appear that the scheme, rather than the lights, was
responsible for easing congestion.

The report does have praise for BBC London's coverage. Whilst the BBC
was not uncritical, it did seek to reflect its viewers' opinions
about the congestion charge and provided them with the information
they needed once it came into force, resulting in the sort of
comprehensive and balanced coverage that Gaber describes as "a model
of public service broadcasting".

Apart from the general negativity of the British press, the report
attributes the lack of enthusiasm of much of the media to three key

- First, the policy was a radical one and, being associated with Ken
Livingstone, was almost invariably going to be perceived as
- Second, opposition to congestion charging came from an alliance of
vested interests such as the AA, the RAC and the Freight Transport
Association - which were all well-organised in media terms.
- And finally, the policy did not receive the vocal support of either
of the two main political parties. The Conservatives were opposed in
principle and Labour were loath to support a policy that might result
in the independently-elected Mayor, gaining political credit.

Despite the fact that congestion charging was designed to benefit
bus, tube and rail commuters - 90% of the travelling London public,
at the expenses of the 10% of commuters who travel into the capital
by car - much of the coverage implied that the scheme was in fact
being implemented in order to satisfy the unreasonable demands of a
small minority of 'car-haters'.

The report highlights the fact that throughout the congestion charge
debate, the opinions of bus, tube and train commuters were hardly
ever heard. Officially they are represented by the London Transport
Users Committee, an organisation whose media profile appears so low
that it is not even referred to on Transport for London's own
website. The report did not find one single comment from this body in
any national or London-wide newspaper or broadcaster throughout the
controversy. Thus without a recognisable `authoritative' source, the
voices of those most affected by the charge went unheard.

* Driven to distraction: an analysis of the media's coverage of the
introduction of the London congestion charge by Professor Ivor Gaber


Notes to Editors
The research was commissioned by the Office of the Mayor of London
and is being published 12 months after the conclusion of the
project's media monitoring operation ended. Overall assessment of the
national and London-wide media, based on the analysis of their
coverage of congestion charging is as follows:

Broadly Supportive: Financial Times; Daily Express; Sunday Express;
The Guardian; BBC London
Neutral; Sunday Telegraph
Sceptical/Cynical; The Observer; The Independent; Independent on
Sunday; Daily Mirror Sunday Mirror; The People; Metro; ITV; London
Hostile; The Times Sunday Times; Daily Telegraph; Daily Mail; Mail on
Sunday; The Sun; News of the World; Evening Standard

To receive an electronic copy of the report please e-mail Janet
Aikman at j.aikman@g.... A hard copy can be obtained from
University of London, Senate House (main reception), Malet Street,
London WC1E 7HU, during office hours.

Further information about the Unit for Journalism Research at
Goldsmiths College, University of London, can be found at

Copyright © Goldsmiths College