Flaunting The Laws Of The Highway

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In case you’ve not already seen it, there’s another video doing the rounds. You can watch it at the Coventry Telegraph.

Screen shot taken from Coventry Telegraph video.

Now, I’m not going to try and argue that everything you see in the video is behaviour that should be encouraged; nor am I going to argue either way as to the character of the kids on the bikes. That’s not what this article is all about.

Let’s deconstruct

In order to have a rational discussion about this, I’d like you to do two things:

Firstly, I’d like you to set aside a couple of aspects of the cycling which I’m not going to defend; specifically, pulling wheelies and moving from the footway to the carriageway without looking. There might be a valid discussion to be had about wheelies, but it’s a completely separate one. (For what it’s worth: Yes, it could be construed as an offence under section 29 of the Road Traffic Act 1988, although as an isolated event involving a child it’s unlikely to pass the public interest test for prosecution. And, yes, riding a unicycle is legal, but that doesn’t inherently make wheelying acceptable just as the legality of a motorcycle doesn’t make it acceptable to drive a car on two wheels.)

Secondly, I’d like you to also set aside any assumption as to the attitudes or intentions of these children. Leave the moral judgements at the door. For the moment we need to look at the behaviour as seen, not at the motives behind it.

Note from the video the following:

  • that at no time do the teenagers venture into the oncoming lane
  • that the driver appears to be keen to pass in multiple locations where it is inadvisable (at “merge left” arrows, on a solid white line, towards oncoming vehicles, approaching a bend, and at a junction), but
  • that the driver is, in most of these cases, prevented from doing so by one of the riders making full use of the available lane width

In short, a lot of what we see can be described as vigorous exercising of the right to the road. By sweeping across the lane, it is clear that any of these teenagers could at any time occupy any of that space. Space which they’re legally entitled to. Space which the driver can avoid very simply by using the adjacent lane to overtake.

Crucially, the result of this weaving across the lane is something that many people would love to be able to achieve: a driver being forced to wait until there is a clear stretch of visible carriageway where he can move fully into the oncoming lane to pass.

Fundamentally, if you were to obscure the children from view within a moving rectangular box, you’d essentially be in the same situation as being behind a tractor towing a trailer along the road: having to wait for sufficient visibility of the oncoming lane to be clear before overtaking.

This is, of course, just one way of viewing the situation: recognising that the appropriate reaction is no different to that which is necessary in at least one other perfectly normal situation that doesn’t involve children in leisurewear. (Or “little shits” as one commenter put it, after another had openly relished the “chance one of them will pay the ultimate price for his stupidity”.)

To fail to acknowledge different perspectives on a situation, however, might be considered to constitute bias.

Hiding bias in plain sight

When the author of the “hooded cyclists” article, Antonia Bannister, pointed out on Twitter that she had once been injured by a reckless cyclist, someone pondered whether this might be causing personal bias. Bannister, who called the teenagers “a bunch of divs” on her personal Facebook page, retorted with the following assertion:

“As a professional journalist, I write unbias [sic] accounts.”

This is a laughable statement, but to consider it in terms of personal bias would be to miss the point. It’s rather more than that.

Swathes of the media were and are literally founded on bias. Outlets are created and nurtured by individuals and corporations with vested political interests and they are the most potent tool in existence with which to exert influence in a democratic context. The Mirror itself was launched by Viscount Harmsworth who used his papers to influence a change of government during World War I.

The notion that being a journalist inherently correlates with a lack of bias is nothing short of ludicrous. Coming from a journalist, a statement to such effect is brazen in its own bias.

If there were no bias here, why the prominent mentions of hoods and tracksuits, which serve no purpose other than pander to prejudice? Why would the strapline be simply the branding of this as “irresponsible and dangerous” when the reader could be left to form their own opinion? Why would we be told that the footage is “shocking” when shock is a reaction which, were an experience actually shocking, viewers would involuntarily feel anyway? Why is there no mention of the driver’s attempts to overtake in inappropriate places? Writing a parallel article for Trinity Mirror’s other West Midlands title, the Birmingham Mail, Bannister leaves barely a sentence free of opinionated hyperbole in relating what she labels a “road rampage”.

No bias?

The lady doth protest too much, methinks. If there were no bias, why subsequently write a second article that leads with “makes me so angry” in its headline?

The option exists to merely report facts and leave the reader to form an opinion. But this is rarely the option chosen by the media, because that is not the media’s function. Of course the account is biased. The reader is served their opinion on a plate, a microwaved ready-meal of anti-cognitive slop, a bowl of easy-to-swallow alphabetti spaghetti carefully spelling out who and what to despise.

The primary function of the media is to guide opinion, and various techniques are used. In this case the technique is to prevent people seeing past prejudice and stereotype; it is to reinforce these and use them as a wall to obscure the fact that the behaviour itself is to all intents and purposes harmless. What the behaviour is, is primarily two things: it’s a bit irritating, and it’s politically undesirable to certain interests. An ideal combination: the former is the key to resolving the latter, and professional journalism is the turning of that key.

Converting opinion to action

Whilst it’s far from alone, Trinity Mirror is one of the more prominent corporations when it comes to output that normalises motor violence and abnormalises cycling. Taking just one of its many titles, GetSurrey, as an example, I’ve poked them over and over and over again about their persistence in airbrushing drivers out of reporting, even when they’ve been convicted of killing. (For a wider view of motor violence apologism, try The Absent Driver.)

Trinity Mirror was one of several forceful media houses when it came to leveraging the incident of Lucie Wilding being struck by someone cycling on the pavement as she ran out from her garden gate. It unequivocally described the “horrifying moment [a] hit-and-run cyclist riding on pavement smashes into three-year-old girl and drags her 12ft”. The cyclist was publicly named by the Mirror and other papers long before he was charged with any offence, and his reactions—which, according to other sources, he at least partially attributed to being in shock—were further vilified by the paper. (Note that this second-stage approach of uncritically publicising, and thus tacitly legitimising, an aggressive public reaction is arguably also seen in the wheelying hoodies “makes me so angry” article.)

However, when a girl of similar age was killed when she was knocked to the ground and then driven over by someone driving on the pavement, Trinity Mirror was rather quieter. Its local title, the Liverpool Echo, reported in calm and dehumanised form that Esme Weir simply “died after being knocked down by a van”; while its national title, the Mirror, further shifted agency to the van rather than the driver, stating that she “was struck by the vehicle as it attempted to park”. No hyperbolic language, no national-scale outrage: just a thing that happened. The driver, who was never named until the reporting of the legal action against him, was mentioned only in the context of being in shock—a detail which serves nicely to trigger empathy and sympathy, which might explain why the Mirror appears to have omitted it from its reporting of the cycling incident.

The cyclist, Andrew Holland, admitted the offence of riding dangerously and was fined £892 for injuring Lucie Wilding.

The driver, Peter Williams, denied causing the death of Esme Weir and was cleared of all charges by a jury.

Neither incident is pleasant. But the one which resulted in grazing was reported with sensationalist hyperbole and its perpetrator publicly outed; the one which resulted in death was reported with palpable understatement, its perpetrator unnamed and his actions attributed to his vehicle. The cyclist decently accepted fault and was robustly fined; the driver declined to accept responsibility and his peers found his actions to be lawful.

In the report of the verdict we are reminded that “there are no winners”: this is a tragedy for the driver, too, and we would be heartless to wish further punishment on him.

Is it so hard to see a path of influence?

The technique has a name: “pre-suasion”. It is incredibly effective.

This pattern is not unique to these titles, nor to Trinity Mirror as a whole. It is pandemic. Lethal motor violence is trivialised and its perpetrators offered sympathy and anonymity, whilst even inconsequential cycling is scandalised and its perpetrators shamed and vilified. This is not done without reason.

The hooded threat to civilisation

Let’s return to our hoodies, and think about it this way. Would you want to cycle unaccompanied on that stretch of road towing a toddler in a trailer? I wouldn’t. But if you were riding in the middle of that group of youths…? I’d feel rather more at ease. If you think you’d feel similarly then it’s hard to deny that this “reckless” behaviour serves, to a greater or lesser extent, to reclaim the road for cycling. (The strapline in the Birmingham Mail described the youths as “flaunting the laws of the highway”; the author presumably intended to write “flouting” but in the context of the alternative perspective the mistake is delicious.)

This behaviour is an act of defiance: it matters little whether in this case it’s a simple act of teenage mischief, the crucial aspect is that it is defiance in the face of motoring. Acts like these chip away, slowly but surely, at motor dominance. Having to afford this much time and space to “little shits” on bicycles would mean having to afford the same to anyone on a bicycle. It would mean having to afford the same to you.

Choose what to oppose

Professional journalism exists largely to do anything but write “unbiased accounts”: journalism is a tool employed to establish bias. In this instance it does so by weaponising an example of behaviour that is of minimal or no harm, by associating it with stereotypes and prejudices and by using provocative and sensational language. In other, complementary instances it does so by normalising behaviour that is lethal, by removing the human agency from events and reporting in an unemotional and neutered manner.

The result manifests itself in many places, including the courts where the consumers of journalism must reach verdicts on offences whose definitions have inbuilt subjectivity.

The media machine chews up kids in hoods and it spits out socio-political influence. It pre-suades. There exists no more lucid a pattern of influence that reaches a jury.

If you want the legal system—or any other facet of society—to stand up for the victims of motor violence or to support non-motorised transport then, regardless of whether you stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the kids, you’d better start standing face-to-face against those who vilify them.

Comments (6)

  1. Good article, seriously pissed off with the whole peter williams incident. ANti-bike media bias seems really bad at the moment.

  2. Pedestrians and cyclists, always have priority over motor vehicles.
    as for doing wheelies, that’s what kids do.
    I wish people with grass cameras would f**k off.
    They are doing big bro’s job for him!

  3. Spot on. Ever noticed how local papers tend to put car crashes in the traffic section, and talk about how much disruption they caused, rather than the physical injuries and distress?

  4. Very well written and some great points made. Keep up the good work.

  5. Great article which makes me sad. I mountain bike because I don’t wish to share the roads with people that don’t want to share it with me. Educated road users needed!

  6. Brilliant bit of metajournalism!

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