Papers 'biased' against congestion charge

Press coverage of the introduction of the London congestion charge was “seriously biased” and failed readers, according to a new report commissioned by the office of Mayor Ken Livingstone.

The report by Professor Ivor Gaber of the Unit for Journalism Research based at Goldsmiths College, University of London, analysed media coverage of the introduction of the charge between January 2002 and the end of May 2003.

Gaber said that the range and quality of Britain’s national press is widely admired, but is also seen as having a particularly negative standpoint, which is apparent in its attitudes towards celebrities and politicians.

“But even by British standards,” claimed 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, according to the report, took the view that the congestion charging scheme was a massive gamble for which London, and its mayor, were ill-prepared.

The report is critical of the Evening Standard’s coverage and for running claims, which were “never substantiated”, of a plot to fix London’s traffic lights in 2002 to increase traffic congestion in the run-up to the scheme. It claimed they were “unfixed” once the charge was introduced, to make the scheme look better.

The Evening Standard said it was “disappointed” it was not consulted by Gaber prior to the report’s publication.

A Standard spokeswoman said: “We supported the introduction of the scheme in principle, but we had concerns about some aspects of its implementation, and our coverage reflected the views of many readers.

“We were the only publication to highlight the failings of the payment system – criticism which Ken Livingstone initially rejected. However, he subsequently admitted that there had been problems, with penalty tickets being issued in error and motorists having serious problems trying to pay the charge.”

The report praised BBC London for its balanced reporting and described its coverage as “a model of public service broadcasting”

By Jon Slattery

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