Times columnist Matthew Parris’s comment piece about cyclists headlined “What’s smug and deserves to be decapitated?” received the most complaints to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) in 2008.
In the press watchdog’s annual report, published today, it is revealed the article’s 584 complaints far outstripped Daily Mail coverage of Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand’s “Sachsgate” scandal, which received a mere 92 complaints in comparison, leaving it trailing in second place.
The article, which can be read in full here began: “A festive custom we could do worse than foster would be stringing piano wire across country lanes to decapitate cyclists.” It went on to criticise cyclists for wearing Lycra and helmets before arriving at its main focus - accusations that cyclists litter hedgerows with empty energy drink bottles during country rides.
The PCC's annual report states: “Much of the concern about The Times article (a comment piece railing against cyclists) related to the tastefulness of the claim. However, the Commission considered one set of arguments that the article was misleading, discriminatory and constituted harassment, and found no breach of the Code.”
The article was printed on December 27, 2007, and by early January had already received more than 200 complaints. On January 3, 2008, Parris apologised, saying: “I offended many with my Christmas attack on cyclists. It was meant humorously but so many cyclists have taken it seriously that I plainly misjudged. I am sorry.”
The PCC report later considers the Parris article in the light of record complaints being made in 2008 overall. It says: “Why were there a record number of complaints in 2008? It’s much easier to complain these days, and I think there is more ‘activism’ online which leads to campaigns against particular stories. For instance, we had over 500 complaints about one piece last year from disgruntled cyclists. There is greater awareness of what the PCC can do too – and the better publications link from their websites straight through to ours.”
This certainly seems to be the case with regards to the article in question. Cycling websites and blogs were alight with responses to the journalist’s “humorous” comments - a selection can be found here and the issue also received a direct response from the editor of The Times (himself a cyclist).
Times editor James Harding said: "While I admire the passion of the cycling lobby and count myself one of their number, I think we do ourselves no favours when we lose our sense of humour and I hope that you, like me, will continue to enjoy Matthew Parris’s excellent writing."
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