The Press Complaints Commission contacted us today to let us know their decision on James Martin's ill-considered rant against cyclists in his piece about the Tesla electric supercar for the Mail on Sunday.
Martin said in his article that when passing a group of cyclists, "I stepped on the gas, waited until the split second before I overtook them, then gave them an almighty blast on the horn at the exact time I passed them at speed. The look of sheer terror as they tottered into the hedge was the best thing I've ever seen in my rear-view mirror".
The remarks prompted outrage in the cycling community and Martin looks to be a shoe-in for the most complained against writer for this year, having garnered over 500 complaints; the PCC only normally handles about 5,000 complaints a year.
As we suspected they would, the PCC found that Martin's piece hadn't breached the Code of Practice, and went into some detail explaining why. For those of you who can't be bothered to read through the rather wordy release below, it boils down to the fact that Martin's derogatory comments earlier in the article were acceptable in accordance with the general principle of freedom of expression, and any criminal act reported would be a matter for the police, not the PCC.
After the outburst Martin posted a short apology on his own website and the most offensive paragraphs were removed from the Mail's website. Along with all the comments. However, the TV chef is still feeling the heat from the cycling community, with subsequent online articles receiving a barrage of negative comments, so much so that you can't comment on his pieces for the Mail any more...
Here's the full release:
Commission's decision in the case of
Various v The Mail on Sunday/Mail on line
The Commission received almost five hundred complaints in regard to an article in the Mail on Sunday on 13 September 2009 headlined 'The Tesla Roadster is the all-electric supercar that's as fast as a Ferrari but as quiet as a bicycle'. In particular, the article stated the following: "I stepped on the gas, waited until the split second before I overtook them, then gave them an almighty blast on the horn at the exact time I passed them at speed. The look of sheer terror as they tottered into the hedge was the best thing I've ever seen in my rear-view mirror". In summary, the complainants said that the article: misrepresented cyclists; represented harassment of - and discrimination against - cyclists and ignored the fact they were vulnerable road users; and appeared to state that the columnist had knowingly committed a crime. Concerns had also been raised that the newspaper had paid a criminal - the columnist himself - for the article.
The Code of Practice does not prohibit columnists expressing their views - however controversial - as long as they are clearly distinguished from fact. In this case, the article clearly represented the columnist's personal view of cyclists, which he was entitled to outline in accordance with the general principle of freedom of expression. This freedom can mean the freedom to speak inappropriately, or to present opinions with which other people may not necessarily agree. While some readers of the colunm had clearly been aggrieved by the columnist's views, this did not automatically mean that Clause I (Accuracy) of the Code had been breached. The complainants had not pointed to anything specifically inaccurate in the article and, in all the circumstances, the Commission could not find any breach ofthis clause.
Clause 4 (Harassment) refers to physical harassment and the method in which journalists make enquiries as part of the newsgathering process. None of the complainants had been approached by the columnist and it followed that no breach of this clause could be established. While the complainants had argued that the article represented harassment of a particular group, this was not covered by the terms of Clause 4.
Many complainants had argued that - as the colunmist had admitted to dangerous driving Clauses 9 (Reporting of Crime) and 16 (Payment to criminals) had been engaged. The Commission did not agree with this assessment. Clause 9 relates to the identification of relatives or friends of those convicted or accused of crime and plainly had no relevance here. In addition, the colunmist had not been formally accused of any crime. There could be no possible breach of Clause 16 either.
Clause 12 (Discrimination) prohibits prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability. The complainants had argued that the alticle was discriminatory and pejorative towards cyclists. However, no discriminatory reference had been made to a paIticular individual and - more significantly - cyclists were not identified as a vulnerable group under the terms of the Code. Against that background, the Commission could not find any breach ofthis clause. While no breach of the Code of Practice had been established by the complaints, the Commission noted that the offending passage had been removed from the online article and that the columnist had published a full personal apology on his own website.
It was important to recognise that a vast majority of complainants felt that the article was inappropriate and offensive. However, this was not something which fell within the Commission's remit. Similarly, any possible illegal action by the complainant was a matter for the police, rather than the Commission.
Dave is a founding father of road.cc, having previously worked on Cycling Plus and What Mountain Bike magazines back in the day. He also writes about e-bikes for our sister publication ebiketips. He's won three mountain bike bog snorkelling World Championships, and races at the back of the third cats.