After my previous post about the BBC East Midlands Today ‘road tax’ debacle, I decided to submit an abridged version. Today I received a response, which I reads like it has been sent out to everyone who submitted a similar complaint.
Dear Dr [C.]
Thank you for contacting us regarding ‘East Midlands Today’ from 12 April on BBC One.
We understand you felt the report on the death of Karl Austin following a collision with an HGV was biased against cyclists.
We have forwarded your concerns to Kevin Hill, Assistant Editor for ‘East Midlands Today’. He has replied as follows:
“Thank you for contacting us about our story involving Karl Austin who was killed while taking part in a time trial on the A50 in Derbyshire. I was producing East Midlands Today on that day and I’d like to offer some background information which should give you a fuller picture of our decisions.
“In the light of recent deaths, the sole purpose of the interview was to discuss the use of busy main roads for cycling time-trials and every question was asked in that context. Many people have judged the entire interview on one selective clip posted on several internet sites including YouTube.
“In that clip our presenter puts forward a common criticism many motorists have of cyclists that since they don’t pay “Road Tax” how do they justify using the highway? “Road Tax” was a colloquial reference to Vehicle Excise Duty. With hindsight we accept the question should have been phrased more carefully. It would have been better to ask: “Many motorists will say they’re taxed to drive their car and they’re not allowed to race on the roads – why should cyclists?
“The interviewee – John Stewart – was given the time to correct the misconceptions about “Road Tax”, pointing out that the tax no longer exists, that VED doesn’t pay for road maintenance and that cyclists pay all sorts of other taxes.
“You may not be aware that this was the second time we had reported on Karl’s death. On March 6, the lorry driver accused of careless driving pleaded guilty when he appeared before Derby Magistrates. In that night’s programme we carried a report on the case, then followed it with a studio interview about the growing demands for greater safety measures to protect cyclists. I believe this sequence put the issue of cycling safety into context for our viewers. It also painted a picture of Karl as a talented, experienced cyclist who would be deeply missed by his family and friends.
“On April 12, we featured a report about the sentence given to the lorry driver who caused Karl’s death. This was followed by an interview with Mr Stewart, who organised and took part in the time trial in which Karl was killed. The reason for looking at this subject was simple: many people are just unaware that time trials can be held on almost any public road. At a time when there are high-profile calls for greater safety for cyclists – as discussed at length in our March 6 programme – the idea of using a dual carriageway for a timed race appears to be contradictory.
“I have re-examined all our coverage of this story including the interview with Mr Stewart and I don’t believe it was an aggressive line of questioning. It was certainly challenging but Mr Stewart responded calmly and robustly. I do not agree with those people who have accused us of insulting Karl’s memory. On two separate occasions, our court reporters have carefully explained that Mr Austin loved his sport, was highly-regarded as a competitor and would be missed by his family. We have remained in contact with Mr Austin’s widow and father and I will be talking to them again over the next few days to discuss any concerns they may have had over our latest coverage.”
We hope this allays your concerns, thanks again for taking the time to contact us.
It is depressing to see the ‘colloquialism’ excuse being rolled out so quickly. Wikipedia defines a colloquialism as:
A colloquialism is a word, phrase, or paralanguage that is employed in conversational or informal language but not in formal speech or academic writing.
Which to me suggests that it should not be used in a news programme, at least not by the presenters. However, a colloquialism is not really the same as referring to something by a misleading name. ‘Road tax’ isn’t a colloquialism, it is a misnomer which is designed to make a link between a tax and a service which simply doesn’t exist.
In that clip our presenter puts forward a common criticism many motorists have of cyclists that since they don’t pay “Road Tax” how do they justify using the highway? “Road Tax” was a colloquial reference to Vehicle Excise Duty. With hindsight we accept the question should have been phrased more carefully. It would have been better to ask: “Many motorists will say they’re taxed to drive their car and they’re not allowed to race on the roads – why should cyclists?
To infer the latter meaning from the actual line of questioning would require a hell of a lot of reading between the lines. Even the corrected question doesn’t need to be asked because the answer is obvious; people racing on bikes are still travelling more slowly and pose less danger than typical motorists do when not racing. Whilst I have no particular interest in sport cycling, it seems to me to be a much less frivolous use of our ‘busy main roads’ than motorists driving unhindered for a distance of a quarter of a mile to buy milk. Not to mention much, much less dangerous to others.
It is also a shame that the BBC refers to those participating in a specific type of cycle-sport as ‘cyclists.’ The combination of creating a link between paying VED and a greater sense of entitlement to the road, whilst framing all cycling as some kind of frivolous leisure activity serves only to increase the strength of the motoring lobby’s position. It also endangers cyclists on the road by creating the idea of the hard-pressed motorist who pays for the roads being inconvenienced by ‘tax-dodging cyclists’ who are ‘only on the road for sport’ in the minds of its viewers.
Will the BBC now be willing to entertain all spurious links between specific taxes and services? Shall I look forward to watching smokers complain about tax-dodging non-smokers borrowing the books they wanted from the library? Perhaps it will have to wait until the tobacco lobby has spent a few decades using the phrase ‘library tax’ in their advertising unchallenged by the relevant authorities.
The BBC has acknowledged the gross factual error in the programme, but has not offered to make a correction on air. Instead, either deliberately or not, it has used public funding to further the goals of the motoring lobby and to contribute to a lie which at best encourages a SMIDGAF attitude in motorists and at worse leads to a culture in which the sorts of assaults and intimidation we have all experienced or heard of from fellow cyclists are allowed to proliferate.