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The media failed to provide balanced and fair coverage of the introduction ...
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*.

The report reveals the results of research

undertaken by 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 Mr 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 manner.

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 sche me 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 factors:

- First, the policy was a radical one and, being associated with Ken

Livingstone, was almost invariably going to be perceived as controversial.

- 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 referre d 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


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 Tonight

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 e-mail Janet Aikman at A hard copy can be obtained from University of London,

Senate House (main reception), Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU, during office


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