The UK’s press watchdog has rejected a complaint regarding among other things the accuracy of comments made in a column in The Sun by FairFuel UK founder Howard Cox following changes made to the Highway Code that took effect from 29 January this year.
Cyclist and road.cc reader Michael Naish had lodged a complaint with regulatory body the Independent Press Standards Office (IPSO) following publication of The Sun’s article on 18 February, which appeared under the headline, Lunatic Highway Code will just encourage road rage and put cyclists at risk – Government must rethink it now.
As we reported here on road.cc at the time, Cox described the revisions – most of which clarify existing road rules rather than creating new ones and which primarily seek to make the roads safer for vulnerable users – a “cyclists’ charter to ride any way they wish,” adding that they “must have been authored by an asylum inmate.”
In his complaint, Michael said that the article contained several potential breaches of the Editors’ Code of Practice, which IPSO polices – but the watchdog rejected each of them, insisting that there were insufficient grounds to find a possible breach of the Code’s provisions.
In terms of a complaint raised under Clause 1 (Accuracy), relating to Cox’s description of the new Highway Code “as a cyclists’ charter to ride any way they wish” with a “biased state-controlled consultation process” IPSO said that it had “looked carefully” at “these and other examples of the characterisations you provided us with.”
However, the regulator said that “The article under complaint was an opinion piece, as made clear by title,” and that it “was an expression of the author’s personal opinions [and] represented the writer’s opinions critical view of the revised Highway Code … In this instance, the opinions reported were clearly presented as comment, and attributed to the individuals responsible for them as they represented the writer’s personal views.
“We recognised that you disagreed with the opinions and views which were published,” the regulator continued. “However, this did not in itself mean the article was misleading to report them. As the complaint did not give us reason to consider the article was misleading, we did not identify sufficient grounds to investigate a possible breach of Clause 1.”
A separate complaint under the same clause held some of Cox’s comments “were untrue or divisive.”
IPSO said: “Firstly, we should make clear that the Editors’ Code does not address issues of division. It is designed to deal with any possible conflicts between the newspapers’ rights to freedom of expression and the rights of individuals, such as their right to privacy.
“Newspapers and magazines are free to publish what they think is appropriate as long as the rights of individuals – which are protected under the Code – are not infringed on.
Among the comments that Michael had insisted were untrue were Cox’s claims that “a small minority of sanctimonious Lycra-clad riders will risk their lives to prove their pathological hatred for the motor car,” that “Behind an ill-informed green agenda and a love for their highly paid cycling tzars, they do seem hell-bent on removing cars from the roads completely,” and that an “Anti-driver Government seem to be deliberately fuelling division.”
But IPSO replied that “In the context of a comment piece, these remarks were clearly hyperbolic and intended to be satirical, rather than intended to be read as fact” – an argument it has used before, notably when Spectator columnist Rod Liddle suggested stretching wire at neck height across country lanes used by cyclists.
“The Preamble to the Editors’ Code of Practice states that the press has a right to be satirical,” IPSO continued, “and where the article was clearly presented as an exaggerated and comedic piece of writing, we found that it was not inaccurate in the way suggested and therefore there was no grounds to investigate this point as a possible breach of Clause 1.”
Which does beg the question of whether, as he typed his article, Cox was intending to write “an exaggerated and comedic piece of writing,” rather than expressing his dissatisfaction with the latest version of the rules governing people’s use of Britain’s roads?
Other complaints raised by Michael, including that the article misrepresented some of the new Highway Code rules, were similarly rejected by IPSO.
Michael intends to request that the decision be reviewed by IPSO’s Complaints Committee.
He also copied the broadcaster and cycle safety campaigner Jeremy Vine, as well as his local MP Jeremy Quinn, in on his email in which he revealed the initial decision.
“I support the notion of a genuine free press with the right to freedom of speech,” he said, “but not when that risks misinterpretation by the reader, which in the worst case may lead to an accident – Furthermore, one that spreads misinformation and is inaccurate.”
He said that he believed Cox’s article “is in breach of the editors code, but the IPSO respondent feels differently,” adding, “To me, it's another great example of the identity politics of cyclist vs motorists, that the press love to keep fuelling.”
Simon joined road.cc as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.