The great traffic light conspiracy

Observations on tricks of the newspaper trade

The introduction of congestion charging in central London last year was, according to the media, just about the end of civilisation as we knew it. Properties in central London would go into physical decline because house owners could not afford the extra £5 a day that tradesmen were likely to charge. Accidents would soar as motorists tried to pay the charge by mobile phone while still driving. You would never have thought, from the coverage, that the charge had long been advocated by transport experts and that the mayor, Ken Livingstone, had been elected on a mandate to introduce it.

The coverage in the London Evening Standard was perhaps the most extraordinary, given its formal editorial position of support for the charge. The cutting edge of its attack was the "discovery" in March 2002 of "the great traffic light conspiracy". This was the theory that London's traffic lights were being fixed in order to increase congestion in the run-up to the scheme. They would then be unfixed to ease congestion after charging began.

Analysing the Standard's coverage of the "conspiracy" reveals some of the less savoury tricks of the British media trade. First, the conspiracy was never properly sourced. The paper's first report attributed the story to a "source" without indicating anything about the source's reliability or seniority. Subsequently the story was sourced back to the paper itself - the "conspiracy" was usually described as "first revealed by the Evening Standard".

In fact, the source was probably a Tory member of the London Assembly after a briefing from Transport for London that either she, or the Standard reporter, misunderstood. But Livingstone couldn't win. Admit that there was a conspiracy, and he would be deceiving the people of London. Insist there was no conspiracy, and he was "refusing to come clean". The mayor was either guilty or guilty.

The Mail on Sunday - a paper which gave the charge, proportionately, more coverage than any other national - sprang another trick. In January 2003, it ran a piece apparently written by the transport journalist Christian Wolmar. It said the charge would be a disaster - a surprising verdict from a writer usually noted as sympathetic to public transport and to control of the private car. As Wolmar later told an outraged reader of Rail magazine: "You find it surprising that I criticised the London congestion charging scheme . . . So did I. I wrote a piece that was broadly supportive . . . but highlighted a few problems. The Mail on Sunday, however, edited my words without consulting me and added in whole chunks of copy to make it into an anti-charging tirade."

Some media outlets did better. BBC London's TV coverage, while not uncritical, was informative, comprehensive and balanced. But overall, congestion charging generated an almost atavistic level of hostility. The Sun's Richard Littlejohn described it as "dreamed up by Red Ken and his sexually inadequate, Lycra-clad, Guardian-reading, cycle-mad, control freaks at Transport for London". But pride of place must go to the Observer, of all papers, which found a rabbi whose synagogue fell inside the charge zone and was willing to be quoted as saying that: "This building was bombed in the war, but Livingstone is going to cause more damage than the Germans." Nice to see people not losing a sense of proportion.

Ivor Gaber is professor (emeritus) of broadcast journalism at Goldsmiths College, University of London. His research report (funded by the Office of the Mayor of London) is available from the college (tel: 020 7919 7171)

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