of the London congestion charge in February 2003, according to a report
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
firstname.lastname@example.org. A hard copy can be obtained from University of London,
Senate House (main reception), Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU, during office