Ruling

01909-22 Walker v Daily Mail

    • Date complaint received

      1st September 2022

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 01909-22 Walker v Daily Mail

Summary of Complaint

1. Peter Walker complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Daily Mail breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Bike lane Britain... the GREAT LEAP BACKWARDS”, published on 25 January 2022.

2. The article was a comment piece which stated the columnist’s opinion on cyclists, the development of city centres to provide more cycle paths as a result of Covid-19 and the changes to the updated Highway Code. When describing the changes to the Highway Code the columnist wrote that: "All you need to know about this madness is that the transport department's 'consultation process' didn't include a single motoring organisation. Pro-bike extremists were given a blank sheet of paper to write their own rules." The article also stated that the “bike lanes built over the past couple of years 'because of Covid' are deserted most of the time". The article described the updated Highway Code as giving “priority to cyclists and pedestrians under all circumstances"; that “Bikers are encouraged to ride two or three abreast in the middle of the road, deliberately to slow traffic to a crawl"; and that "Under the new rules, there is no requirement for cyclists to use expensively installed bike lanes”. The article also stated that “Genghis Khan’s London looks as if it has been hit by a cluster of neutron bombs, which has left the buildings and bike lanes intact and laid waste to all commercial activity” and referred to “Town Hall Guardianista polar-bear huggers in thrall to cult of the great god cycling”.

3. The article also appeared online under the headline “RICHARD LITTLEJOHN: Bike lane Britain...the Great Leap Backwards. Under cover of Covid, officials have turned our city centres into crazy golf courses giving priority to Lycra-clad lunatics on racing bikes”, published on 24 January in substantially the same format.

4. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. He said that it was inaccurate to report that no motoring organisations had taken part in the consultation process over the Highway Code. He said that the consultation was an open process, and specifically noted that a large motoring organisation had confirmed their involvement with him, and others had published their involvement on Twitter.

5. The complainant also said that it was inaccurate to report that bike lanes built within the past few years were “deserted most of the time." Whilst he accepted that some recently built lanes were less well-used, he said that many were very well used.

6. The complainant also had concerns regarding the way the article presented the new Highway Code. He said that it was inaccurate to report that the new Code gave “priority to cyclists and pedestrians under all circumstances", and the correct position was that it created a “hierarchy of road users”. The complainant said that the hierarchy was a duty of mutual care and did not mean cyclists and pedestrians had priority under all circumstances, but rather in some specific scenarios. He also said that “priority” was a specific and quasi-legal road traffic term, which should not be used interchangeably with the hierarchy of road users.

7. The complainant also said it was inaccurate to report that cyclists were "encouraged" to ride two or three abreast. He said the correct position was that cyclists were told they could ride two abreast if it was safer to do so, and noted the Highway Code did not refer to riding three abreast, but stated: “You can ride two abreast and it can be safer to do so, particularly in larger groups or when accompanying children or less experienced riders.” He also considered that, where there were large groups of cyclists, riding two abreast could make it quicker for cars to overtake. He also said it was inaccurate to refer to cyclists riding in the middle of the “road” as it should have referred to the “lane” of the road instead.

8. The complainant also thought it was misleading to state that "Under the new rules, there is no requirement for cyclists to use expensively installed bike lanes", as the previous iteration of the Highway Code did not require cyclists to use bike lanes and this was not, therefore, a change to the rules.

9. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code. It said that the article should be read in its context: the opinion piece of a columnist who was well known for his satirical style and for expressing his strong personal opinions in a colourful way. The publication said that readers would be aware that much of the content of his columns was his own comment.

10. The publication said that it had taken care over the claim that no motoring organisations had been included in the consultation. It noted that the day the article was published online a public radio show had featured the Director of Policy and Research at IAM RoadSmart, which the publication described as the UK’s largest independent road safety charity. The director had stated that: “There is a lot of ambiguity within these new rules because the rules were written by cycling and walking organisations – they were given a blank cheque to look at this about a year and a half ago. There was a consultation – that consultation unfortunately was hijacked by the cycling lobby itself. They proudly told us that of the 20,000 responses to the Highway Code Consultation, 16,000 came from cyclists […] nobody from the motoring organisations was involved in the initial consultation”. The publication said that the article had accurately reported the statement from the radio show, and that it was entitled to rely on a public statement from a senior director at such a charity.

11. The publication did, however, accept that some motoring organisations had participated in the consultation. Whilst it did not accept that this represented a significant inaccuracy in the context of the overall article, it offered to remove the following sentences from the article: “All you need to know about this madness is that the transport department’s ‘consultation process’ didn’t include a single motoring organisation. Pro-bike extremists were given a blank sheet of paper to write their own rules”. It also offered to publish the following clarification in its page two corrections and clarifications box and as a footnote to the online article:

A column on January 25 about updates to the Highway Code for cyclists said that the “consultation process” did not include “a single motoring organisation”. While this claim was made by a leading road safety charity about the initial consultation, we have since been informed that several motoring organisations were involved at a later stage.

12. The publication said that the statement within the article that cycle lanes built within “the past couple of years” were “deserted most of the time" was not a strict claim of fact, which was apparent from the context of the article. It said that the article was clearly a satirical comment piece in which the writer often drew upon his own experiences and observations for humorous hyperbolic effect. For example, elsewhere in the article, the writer said that: “Genghis Khan’s London looks as if it has been hit by a cluster of neutron bombs, which has left the buildings and bike lanes intact and laid waste to all commercial activity” and referred to “Town Hall Guardianista polar-bear huggers in thrall to cult of the great god cycling”. The publication said that, within the context of the article, readers would understand that the writer was not claiming he had closely studied every recently built bike lane, and considered that it would be difficult to find a strict definition of a bike lane being “deserted most of the time”. It said, however, that the point had a strong basis of fact and provided IPSO with multiple articles which commented on underused or empty bike lanes; examples of cycle lanes being removed or reconsidered because they were unsuitable, ill-considered, or dangerous to other road users; and a Facebook group dedicated to images and videos of empty cycle lanes in London.

13. The publication said that the new Highway Code featured a new “Hierarchy of Road Users” which placed cyclists and pedestrians at the top. It said, therefore, that it was not inaccurate to report that it gave “priority” to cyclists and pedestrians above all other road users. The publication also said that the new Highway Code had removed the old rule which stated that cyclists “never ride more than two abreast” and had added a new rule for cyclists to “ride in the centre of [their] lane” in some circumstances. It said that it was clear that these deliberate changes had the effect of encouraging bikers to ride two or three abreast in the middle of the road, which it considered would indisputably slow traffic. The publication also stated that there was no significant difference between the middle of the “road” and the middle of the “lane”. It said that a person cycling in the middle of a lane, would also be in the middle of the road - as opposed to cycling at its edge. The publication said that where the updated rules did not require cyclists to use bike lanes, and where the article did not claim that this had not been present in the previous iteration of the rules, it was not inaccurate to report the under “the new rules, there is no requirement for cyclists to use expensively installed bike lanes".

14. The complainant said that the correction offered by the publication was still inaccurate. He said it was not correct that motoring organisations took part in the consultation "at a later stage". He said that there was a fixed-time consultation process, which everyone could submit their views before the deadline including a number of motoring groups. He said that the term “at a later stage” implied that motoring organisations had only taken part after other groups. The complainant also said that the publication had only demonstrated that some bicycle lanes were empty at certain points, rather than all recently built bike lanes being deserted most of the time. He also disagreed that the hyperbolic statements used as examples by the publication were relevant to the claim that recently built bike lanes were deserted most of the time. He said that these statements came earlier in the article, whereas the phrase about deserted bike lanes came later, in the more serious and factual part of the article.

15. The publication said that motoring organisations had been involved in the public consultation, which it understood to be the final stage of any consultation process, and therefore did not consider the wording it had offered to be misleading. However, it amended the offered wording to remove the reference to “at a later stage” to state:

A column on January 25 about updates to the Highway Code for cyclists said that the “consultation process” did not include “a single motoring organisation”. While this claim was made by a leading road safety charity about the initial consultation, we have since been informed that several motoring organisations were involved in the process.

Relevant Code Provisions

Clause 1 (Accuracy)

i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and — where appropriate — an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.

iii) A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.

iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

Findings of the Committee

16. The Committee firstly noted that the article under complaint was a comment piece, and clearly distinguished as such by the tone, format and the by-line and photograph of a well-known columnist. However, it also made clear that newspapers have an obligation to take care not to publish inaccurate information, even in comment pieces.

17. The article had reported that “the transport department's 'consultation process' didn't include a single motoring organisation”. Although it appeared in the context of an opinion piece, this was clearly a statement of fact, which the publication accepted was not accurate. The publication had reported the claim as fact after a director of a road safety charity had spoken on a radio program. The charity was not responsible for the consultation, nor did the article attribute the claim to that person. Where the information about who was involved in the consultation was inaccurate and given that accurate information was in the public domain or available by contacting motoring organisations, as the complainant did, this fell short of the publication’s responsibility to take care under Clause 1(i). Where the central argument presented in the article was that the thinking of policy makers, and particularly the revised Highway Code, had been captured by the pro-cycling lobby at the expense of car users, stating that no motoring organisations were involved in the consultation was a significant inaccuracy that required correction.

18. The publication had offered wording on this point which acknowledged the inaccuracy and put the correct position on record. The wording was offered in the publication’s first substantive response to the complaint after the complainant demonstrated that motoring organisations had formed part of the consultation, with the publication offering to revise the offered wording to reflect the complainant’s later concerns. The wording was offered to be published as a footnote to the online article, and in the newspaper’s established corrections and clarifications box, whereas the original article had appeared on page 19; and the publication offered to delete the sentences from the article. The wording, therefore, was both duly prompt and prominent and there was no breach of Clause 1(ii).

19. The article stated that “bike lanes built over the past couple of years 'because of Covid' are deserted most of the time". The Committee considered the statement in the context of the article – which was clearly a satirical opinion piece. It also noted the articles and information provided by the publication, which gave many examples of pop-up cycle lanes being underused or even closed. Where it had been reported that bike lanes were not being frequently used, and where the complainant accepted that several Covid bike lanes were not well used and in the context of a hyperbolic comment piece, the Committee did not consider the phrase “deserted most of the time” to be an inaccurate statement of fact in the way the complainant suggested. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

20. The complainant also had concerns regarding the way the Highway Code had been portrayed in the article. The Committee considered that there was adequate basis in the new Highway Code to support the publication’s characterisation of the changes. On the first point, the new Highway Code featured a new “Hierarchy of Road Users”, which placed cyclists and pedestrians at the top. Again, in the context of an opinion piece in a newspaper, rather than a driving manual or legal document, it was not inaccurate to characterise this as giving “priority under all circumstance” to cyclists and pedestrians, where the complainant accepted that the “hierarchy of Road Users” placed cyclists and pedestrians above other road users, and this hierarchy was intended to help road users understand and interpret the Highway Code. There was no breach of the Code on this point.

21. The Committee noted that the new Highway Code did not state that cyclists could or should ride three abreast. However, it was not in dispute that the new Highway Code had removed a prohibition on riding more than two abreast, while setting out more specifically the circumstances where riding two abreast might be appropriate. It also allowed for cyclists to ride in the centre of the lane. For those reasons and in a comment piece that was clearly setting out the writer’s concerns about the potential for cyclists to take up more road space and potentially obstruct traffic it was not inaccurate to report that “Bikers are encouraged to ride two or three abreast in the middle of the road”. In addition, the columnist was entitled to state his opinion that this was “deliberately to slow traffic to a crawl" – this was distinguished as being his view by the use of the adverb “deliberately” being clearly satirical. There was no breach of the Code on these points.

22. Where the complainant did not dispute that the new Highway Code did not require cyclists to use bike lanes, and where the article had not stated that this had changed from the previous iteration of the Code, it was not inaccurate to report that "Under the new rules, there is no requirement for cyclists to use expensively installed bike lanes". There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

Conclusion(s)

23. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1(i).

Remedial Action Required

24. The wording which was offered clearly put the correct position on record, and was offered promptly and with due prominence, and should now be published.


Date complaint received: 03/03/2022

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 08/08/2022