There aren’t many topics that unite the UK’s major press organisations. Look at most significant regular topics covered in the popular press and, generally speaking at least, you’ll see a fair amount of division of opinion; immigration – divided, taxation – divided, Iraq/Afghanistan – divided. Bitter exchanges are regularly fought between the major papers, magazines and websites from all sides of the political spectrum as they battle to win the hearts and minds of the British public. And this doesn’t seem likely to change anytime soon.
But do they argue about the value and role of speed-cameras on our roads? Not as much as you might expect.
Other than the occasional opinion column or intentionally challenging article, the vast majority of the UK press inevitably adopts a pro-motorist stance when dealing with stories relating to speed-cameras, often disregarding them as government money-making machines and a largely-unwanted public nuisance.
So why is it that something designed from the outset to save lives and prevent road accidents, pretty much unites the major press in this country in its general disdain and mistrust? It’s this question that I intend to explore and answer in this paper.
Methods and approaches used in this paper
In order to analyse and prove or disprove my hypothesis that the UK press takes an anti-speed-camera stance, I will look at a wide variety of related stories featured in the major UK general press publications, mainly focusing on the major national newspapers and their websites.
In order to not present a biased view, I will intentionally avoid articles featured in motoring publications/websites, anti-motoring publications/websites and specialist motoring sections in the wider popular press. The only exception to this will be if I choose to use comment and analysis written by major motoring figures to explore the influence of such articles and/or individuals, in explaining why the UK press takes the anti-speed-camera approach that I am hypothesising.
Analysis – examples of the UK press’ anti-speed-camera stance
It doesn’t take long to find dozens if not hundreds of examples of how the UK press treats the issue of speed-cameras. Thankfully the internet makes this search particularly easy; the most simple of searches using phrases such as ‘speed-cameras’, ‘caught speeding’ and ‘road safety’ reveals a seemingly endless deposit of anti-speed-camera sentiment being banded across the pages and websites of the national press, from tabloid to broadsheet (Google.co.uk, 2009).
In July 2008 Swindon Borough Council in Wiltshire became the first UK council to officially state that they would no longer be funding the installation or operation of safety-cameras, stating that they viewed them as a “blatant tax on motorists”. Unsurprisingly the UK press clambered all over this story, and although there were a number of follow-up articles expressing the opinions of road safety groups brandishing the move “reckless” and “a dangerous experiment with people’s lives” (Hines, 2008), the vast majority of articles took a very clear anti-speed-camera tone.
Examples of this can be found in The Sun, which proclaims the move “a ground-breaking stand against the government cashing in on motorists” (Coles, 2008), the Daily Mail, where the article headline reads “Council scraps speed-cameras – because they are a ‘blatant tax on motorists’“ (Massey, 2008) and Sky News who lead with the headline “Scrap Cash-Cow Speed Cameras” (2008).
Another very recent speed-camera-related story that has received widespread coverage in the popular UK press is the six-month driving ban awarded to Tom Riall, CEO of the speed-camera division of Serco – the sole distributer of market leading GATSO cameras in the UK. Given the ironic nature of his speeding offence it’s perhaps not surprising that the UK press had a field day with this one, further outlining its anti-camera attitude.
The Daily Mail published a particularly smug, self-congratulating interpretation of the story, outlining how Riall had spearheaded a campaign stressing the “direct consequences of reckless and dangerous driving” was with his wife and three teenage children when he was pulled over. They continue the sarcastic tone, stating that “the ban would cause him exceptional hardship because he would have to use savings set aside for his children’s school fees to employ drivers to take him to meetings” (Levy, 2009).
The Mirror’s interpretation of the story was less subtle and even more scathing, simply stating that “Speed-camera boss Tom Riall had a taste of his own medicine after being clocked doing 103mph… It was undignified of him to try to wriggle out of a six-month ban… It’s just a shame he wasn’t caught by one of his own company’s cameras” (2009). Again, even when the camera itself is not the target of the attack, The Mirror leaves us in no doubt about their attitude towards speed-cameras and the industry that thrives off them.
But it’s when statistics and numbers are revealed that the UK press unleashes its most critical attacks on speed-cameras. I found surprisingly few articles that use statistics and numbers to demonstrate the effectiveness of speed-cameras, but the briefest of searches online proves that the UK press is more than willing to use them to attack the effectiveness, value or real need for speed-cameras in the UK.
A great example of this appeared in the Daily Telegraph in 2007, when columnists James Kirkup and David Millward wrote an article unhesitatingly entitled ‘Anger as fines from speed-cameras soar’ (Kirkup and Millward, 2007). The meat provided for the bones of this article came in the form of new government statistics demonstrating that since Labour came to power, “the number of fixed penalty notices for speeding has almost trebled from 700,000 a year to more than 1.9 million”, and that “speeding tickets are now raising almost £120 million a year – most of which is simply ploughed back into operating the cameras”. The article continues to highlight how despite this increase, “road deaths have fallen only marginally” over the past 10 years. The tone of this entire piece is unquestionably and relentlessly anti-speed-cameras. Of the article’s twenty-eight paragraphs, only the last four are used to introduce any kind of counter-argument and even then it’s flimsy and intentionally blandly presented.
The Daily Mail seems keen to gain the status of speed-camera-enemy no.1 with recent scathing pieces such as “Road safety ‘made worse’ by speed-cameras” (2009) which compares the UK’s road safety record unfavourably with that of other EU countries despite higher speed-camera deployment and “Milking the motorist: how speed-cameras rake in £10,000 an HOUR from drivers” (Slack, 2009) which emphasizes the cameras’ role as money-maker rather than safety device. In both articles stats and numbers are again heavily used and the Mail’s focus on anti-speed-camera sentiment suggests that the paper has recognized this hot topic and is intent on exploiting its appeal with readers, (though there may possibly be an element of labour-bashing present from this traditionally right-wing publication).
Analysis – why the UK press takes and anti-speed-camera stance
So given this seemingly clear anti-speed-camera stance taken by the UK press, attention must now turn to why this approach is being so universally adopted.
Perhaps the most simple and logical explanation behind this stance is that there are over thirty million registered drivers in the UK (Buchanan, 2008), all of whom are aged over 17 and sit within the target age range of the major newspapers, magazines and websites of the popular press. That’s half the entire UK population; which no matter how you spin it, is one hell of a lot of motorists.
Now that doesn’t stop the government from screwing the motorist at every available opportunity, but then we only get to vote for our government every four years; papers need to attract buyers every day and daren’t risk alienating such a large proportion of its readership by taking a stance that seems likely to fly in the face of the freedom and independence that motorists enjoy.
The truth is that speed-cameras do exactly that, they are a threat to our driving licences, which in turn presents a threat to our freedom, independence, social lives and even ability to earn money. Take away our eligibility to drive and you take away a huge chunk of our ability to function within modern society.
And it should not be forgotten that speed-cameras are very much a legal and financial threat as well. The most trivial of speed-camera-recorded offences carry a minimum £60 fine, but also create an automatic criminal conviction. It may be the case that such offences are deemed so minor that they are not worth worrying about, but it’s a criminal conviction nevertheless, and who likes being branded a criminal? Commit a more serious speeding offence and the financial and legal implications can be vast; with fines rising into the hundreds of pounds and every form of criminal prosecution available, from driving ban to imprisonment.
And speeding convictions are no longer the preserve of boy racers and bikers; according to recent figures around a quarter of the UK’s thirty million registered motorists have been convicted of a speeding offence within the past four years (metro.co.uk, 2009). This equates to eight million offences over the same period – around two million every year (Kirkup and Millward, 2007).
So no matter how you look at it, the number of people on Britain’s roads combined with an ever-increasing army of convicted speeders at ever-greater risk of criminal, financial and independence jeopardy, all equates to one almighty wave of negative public opinion towards safety-cameras. It’s perhaps unsurprising therefore, that negative attitudes towards speed-cameras in the UK major press is so easy to find and so prevalent – why would they risk demonising and alienating such a vast proportion of their own readership base? And it’s arguable that this approach becomes something of a vicious circle and self-fulfilling prophecy; the more people get caught speeding then the greater the strength of public opinion against speed-cameras, which in turn leads to the papers reflecting their readers views even further by becoming increasingly anti-speed-cameras, and so the circle continues.
But perhaps it’s possible that the reason we see such anti-speed-camera sentiment in the press is related to this reflection of public perception in a much simpler way? After all, papers and websites are written by journalists, which means (in most cases at least…) that they are written by human beings. Perhaps it’s simply the case that a large proportion of members of the press have, at some point, been victim to a speeding conviction and the bitterness and anger that they feel is merely reflected in the tone of their articles. I for one know that were I commissioned to write a piece that gave any scope to question the effectiveness/reasoning behind safety-cameras, I would find it hard not to let my own personal negative feelings come to the surface.
Another possible reason that we see such a clear anti-speed-camera sentiment could lie in the hands of a few influential people, particularly from high-profile journalists. As a case in point, the rise of Jeremy Clarkson as the pre-eminent motoring journalist in the UK has been swift and all-encompassing. BBC’s Top Gear TV show alone attracts over seven million viewers per episode (Hamilton, 2009) and in combination with fellow presenters/journalists Richard Hammond and James May, Clarkson has become a national celebrity with a hugely influential voice. Clarkson and co have never been afraid to vociferously express their disdain for what they see as government “cash-cows” (Clarkson, 2008) and given their massive influence on media and public alike, it’s perhaps not unreasonable to suggest that as well as their own columns and articles, they have ensured that the rest of the media follows suit in their campaign to discredit and banish speed-cameras from our roads.
Analysis – what this reveals about the UK press and its motives/influences
As a result of this analysis of speed-camera-related articles and investigation of possible explanations for this apparent anti-camera/pro-motorist stance, we can perhaps understand a little better how the UK press works and what makes it tick.
One thing’s for sure; people buy papers. If the papers, magazines and websites don’t keep people happy, entertained, satisfied and on-board with their views, then those people won’t buy their publications or visit their websites. This is far from a startling concept of course, but this example of the treatment of speed-camera-related stories in the UK press is as good an indication as any of this reliance upon the views and opinions of the purchasing public.
The truth is, people buy the papers and visit the websites that they feel an affiliation with. Those of a left-wing disposition may traditionally favour the likes of the Guardian or Independent, while those from the right may favour the Daily Mail or Daily Telegraph; it’s human nature to associate yourself with people, opinions and products that you empathise with (McNair, 2003: Ch.3).
And the same can be said in this instance. It seems reasonable to suggest that the tone of such articles presented in the UK press implies that the opinion of the UK public is largely anti-speed-cameras. And consequentially, therefore, it seems fair to suggest that the UK public has voted with its wallets and mouse clicks on the issue of speed-camera and the press has merely reacted in kind.
While it seems very evident that the apparent anti-speed-camera stance taken by the popular press in the UK is as much a reflection of and pandering to the opinion of the UK public as anything else, something that this situation also tells us about the UK press is that in this case at least, it would appear that sales figures take precedence over political correctness.
After all, the fact is that speed-cameras, no matter how little you believe they are being used as such, were not only designed to save lives, but are actually widely acknowledged to have achieved as such. Figures, although varied, do generally suggest that speed-cameras have saved numerous British lives through reducing traffic speeds since their introduction in 1992 (Rospa, 2009; DfT, 2003).
So while it can be argued that the press is not anti-speed-cameras per se, rather that it is against the misuse of speed-cameras as cash-cows, there is also an argument to suggest that the press has a responsibility to accurately reflect the fact that speed-cameras can and do save numerous lives when used correctly. There has been, and remains, a real danger that the press’ willingness to appease it readers and increase sales at any cost has, in this instance at least, jeopardised its neutrality and accurate representation of the issue. So strong is the apparent anti-speed-camera sentiment amongst the UK public, as explained previously in this paper, that the press has little choice but to reflect that opinion rather than challenge it, at least with any real consistency (Franklin et al, 2005: 99-100).
The aim of this paper was to explore, analyse and answer my own hypothesis that the UK popular press presents a largely anti-speed-camera sentiment when reporting on the topic of speed-cameras and speeding.
In order to achieve these objectives, I have demonstrated numerous examples of this behaviour amongst major UK press publications over the past few years, exploring the tone and approach of these articles. I have also attempted to explore the reasons why such articles are so prevalent in the UK press and why the anti-speed-camera stance seems to so heavily outweigh the pro-speed-camera viewpoint, before finally looking at what these examples and explanations tell us about the UK press in terms of their relationship with their readers and amongst themselves.
What has become clear to me while researching for this paper is that my original hypothesis is indeed true. The most simple of searches for anti-speed-camera sentiment in speeding-related articles in the UK major press reveals a veritable cornucopia of examples, while a search for articles representing the opposite view – that of the pro-camera lobby – is remarkably less fruitful.
With that in mind, attention must turn to why this is happening. While there is no definitive single answer, it seems reasonable to suggest that the interrelationship between reader and publication from both an ideological and commercial standpoint, is perhaps the greatest contributor to this phenomenon. In modern media and multimedia the immediacy and expanse of feedback from consumers is greater than ever; publications are more aware of the opinions of their readers than ever before, while the additional commercial pressures caused by falling sales and reduced advertising revenue for the written press means that keeping readers placated is more vital than ever (McNair, 2003: Ch.3). Since it seems apparent that the UK public takes a largely anti-speed-camera stance, it is hardly surprising to discover that the UK press reflects this.
And while the influence of established and popular anti-speed-camera journalists should not be underestimated and neither should the role of journalists as aggrieved motorists and human beings with personal agendas, it’s this interrelationship between public and press that is undoubtedly the key factor in explaining why the UK major press takes a largely anti-speed-camera stance when reporting on related stories. Unless the views and opinions of the public towards speed-cameras changes drastically, which appears unlikely anytime soon, then it seems only reasonable to suggest that this trend will at least continue for the foreseeable future, if not expand.
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