On Wednesday morning, I’ll be a little bit more wary when I cycle into work. I’m always hugely careful, anyway – the trip involves sharing space with tonne-plus lumps of speeding metal – but this time I’ll be particularly on my guard. Why? Because Channel 5 are putting me, and others, at risk.
At 9.15pm on Tuesday, a reasonably sizeable number of people, the majority of whom probably drive motor vehicles, will sit down to watch what is undoubtedly the worst, most scaremongering, inaccurate, downright irresponsible programme on cycling I’ve ever seen.
Cyclists: Scourge of the Streets? – though the preview version also seemed to call it Cycle Wars – is, in effect, 45 minutes of hatred, misinformation and outgrouping against people who just happen to sometimes use two wheels to get about.
But the Channel 5 offering feels uniquely damaging. While it does contain one sensible, balancing voice, the saintly PC Mark Hodson from the pioneering traffic unit of West Midlands police, the overall tone is shockingly hostile and provocative.
Below, I explain why I found it so unsettling. But first, the inevitable question: why does any of this matter? Bad TV does tend to punch down, to target easy-to-scapegoat groups such as people reliant on social security. Why worry?
The reason is this: for all that a fair number of people who cycle in the UK can often be assertive, even relatively privileged, when off the bike, on the roads they are almost uniquely vulnerable. They are unprotected flesh, blood and bone entirely reliant on the care and goodwill of a potentially distracted, even hostile stranger piloting a vast, metal machine that could so easily maim or kill them.
And the way those strangers feel about cyclists, the negative messages they are fed, or that are reinforced, by the media, can potentially play a role in how careful they are when driving.
It is a difficult notion to conclusively prove, but there are studies that indicate drivers can and do take half-conscious split-second decisions about how much space to leave a cyclist; and others that show drivers with negative attitudes towards cyclists might be less cautious towards them.
And so it’s my belief that Channel 5, and Firecracker Films, responsible for this nonsense, have made me marginally less safe on the roads; the same applies to loved ones and everyone else on two wheels. Thanks a bundle.
Now, to save you the bother of watching this, here’s why I believe the programme is so irresponsible.
It openly “others” cyclists
The language of prejudice and hatred tends to have one thing in common – it seeks to creates “outgroups”, those who are seen as another, not part of the mainstream. At its more sinister ends, it also uses language which views the outgroup as somehow less than human.
Amazingly, the programme does both. The narration refers to “swarms” of cyclists, while one interviewee, a London taxi driver, likens them to “a plague of locusts coming down the road”.
Throughout, the narration repeatedly and deliberately talks of cyclists as the other – “this lot” as they are referred to at one point – while drivers are seen as the mainstream. A long section of the programme details the anti-cycling opinions of some London taxi drivers, who are introduced as “three of the city’s finest”.
The message could hardly be clearer.
The narration is openly hostile and aggressive
I was, at times, genuinely open-mouthed at the narration. It’s best shown by a series of direct quotes. These are genuine, I promise.
Many motorists see cyclists as scum of the roads – speeding through crossings, riding where they shouldn’t, and generally hogging the roads.
For many drivers in the capital, cyclists have become public enemy number one.
What really winds motorists up is the feeling that cyclists are allowed to pedal outside of the law.
It’s not just in cities that some riders are on a right old rampage.
The pastoral dream – or it was until the cyclists came.
Cyclists sure can be a pain in the rear end, and some are a danger on the roads.
It creates a false narrative of “war” between different road users
The programme’s researchers were clearly briefed to find the most aggressive and extreme footage they could find on YouTube, and they delivered. It is, the narration says, “the battle for Britain’s roads”.
Aside from being needlessly confrontational and hugely irresponsible, this is also utter nonsense for two very obvious reasons. Firstly: these are very often the same people. About 90% of British Cycling members also drive.
Also, “war” implies at least some equality in numbers and reciprocal threat. Chris Boardman possibly put it best: “You’ve got 2% of vulnerable road users versus 98% in two tonnes of steel. How can you possibly have a war? I think that’s called a massacre.”
Too many of the contributors are chosen for their hostility
Perhaps the most airtime is given to a series of London taxi drivers, whose many problems with cyclists are given a long and sympathetic hearing. London’s cabbies have a reputation for ill-tempered and prejudiced views about lots of different groups, which are usually not heard with such credulity.
Even more grim is the opportunity given to Nick “Mr Loophole” Freeman, a lawyer and absurd self-publicist whose day job involves getting celebrity drivers out of punishment for alleged behaviour that genuinely is harmful to others – speeding. He has a long and tedious sideline in calling for cyclists to be registered and wear number-plate tabards.
“They need to be legislated, they need to be controlled, and they need to comply with the laws of the land, in exactly the same way that we do,” Freeman says at one point, oblivious to the pathetic paradox between this view and his own day job.
The “balance” is – for the most part – cursory and poorly-handled
The only bearable section of the programme follows PC Hodson on patrol, pulling over drivers who pass him too close on his bike, in some cases while merrily chatting on the phone. He is – as always – excellent. However, this is just five minutes of 45.
In contrast, the other voice-of-the-cyclist is a man called Dave Sherry, who rides his bike adorned with cameras and wearing a Kevlar stab vest, pedalling around his local streets on the hunt for lawbreaking drivers.
I have no objection to using camera footage to prosecute dangerous driving, but Sherry seems almost as fervent a self-publicist and irritant as Freeman, often delighting in the furious reaction of motorists.
It repeats falsehoods unchallenged
The cavalier approach to facts begins, amazingly, with the very first words spoken: “Britain has gone bike mad.” It hasn’t. Cycling levels have risen in some places, but nationwide the percentage of trips made by bike is stuck stubbornly on about 2%. It’s a common mistake, generally made by people who rarely leave central London.
Things don’t get any better. Among the falsehoods made, either by the narration or by contributors, which are not corrected or countered, are:
• Cyclists are particularly prone to break the law. One taxi driver says: “Most of the accidents, when you look at them, are probably the cyclists wearing headphones. They’re not even taking any notice of the road, and the traffic lights, and the zebra crossings. They’re lawless.”
• The programme quotes from the Highway Code’s advice that cyclists wear helmets as evidence for a lack of adherence to rules. This is purely guidance.
• Cycle lanes in London are responsible for traffic jams and are barely used.
The tone is absurdly apocalyptic
This is best exemplified by a ridiculous section on the number of leisure cyclists who ride on Box Hill in Surrey – “the adrenaline junkies infiltrating Box Hill”, as the narration puts it – which is portrayed as the opening front of the next world war.
“Life in leafy suburbia would never be the same,” says the narration, followed by frankly weird complaints about cyclists supposedly throwing away their water bottles – perhaps the ones that cost £5 or more each – and (I swear I’m not making this up) accusations that they “defecate in people’s front gardens”.
The absurdity grows as the programme follows a local man driving a vast 4x4 down narrow lanes, complaining he cannot overtake them on blind bends. “There is a limit of the number of cyclists you can have on our very, very small roads,” he says, without any apparent irony or self-awareness.
The same man ends by complaining that his 3,500-signature petition has not prompted stern government action: “I can envisage civil disorder happening on the roads if this situation is allowed to continue.”