Eye on the local media

Jon Fuller

As the Culture, Media and Sport committee of MPs reported on the News of the World phone tapping scandal and the press became the focus of news headlines people were given a rare opportunity to consider the impact the press has upon political life and, indeed, the attitudes and opinions of us all. One of the most telling remarks made on the day of the Committee’s report came from the publicist Max Clifford. Commenting upon Parliament’s refusal to properly regulate the media he said: “Parliament doesn’t have the balls to stand up to Fleet Street”. He argued that MP’s were too scared to take on the press for fear of losing editorial support, which is, of course, crucial to electoral success.

But could the same be true of the local media? While there have been some famous spats between the local press and politicians, perhaps the most infamous recently being the Echo’s pursuit of David Amess MP when the expenses scandal broke? Would councillors take on the press in a robust manner if they felt an editor was out of line? This, we feel, is an issue a local on-line paper like Eye on Southend could turn its attention to. Over time we would like to grow to a point where we can highlight issues of this nature, so the public gain a better understanding of the forces that drive decisions in the town.

To kick things off I felt I should recount some of my own experiences of dealing with the press. As a seasoned road safety and environmental campaigner I know only too well the extent to which the UK’s media has undermined and delayed progress on the road safety front.

Around 10 years ago I took on the might of The Sun over its unrelenting campaign against speed cameras and other road safety measures. In the early to mid-90s the UK suffered the worst child pedestrian fatality rate in the EU, with speeding motorists being responsible for killing around 110 children a year. Appealing to “White Van man” The Sun and other “red tops” campaigned against measures which were slowly reducing the numbers killed on UK roads. I wrote to every MP in the UK, seeking the introduction of new legislation to limit the damage the papers were doing, whilst respecting their right to freedom of speech. The proposed legislation was known as “Wades Law”. While MPs categorically refused to step in to stop the press from contributing to the killing of around 110 children each year, the campaign was a success in that it appeared to have forced the “red tops” to tone it down.

Working with the campaign group “SpeedLimit” I organised a number of radical campaigns, including the leafleting of virtually every home in Sedgefield – the then PM’s constituency (Tony Blair). Shortly after the 97 election, and having suffered a refusal to act on child pedestrian fatalities, I organised a team to mass leaflet the constituency. I used incredibly strong language, emphasising the wilful abuse of the nation’s children. Within a month of the campaign Blair committed the UK to halving the number of children killed on UK roads within 10 years. The UK achieved its target 3 years early. Police records show that in 2007 the number of children killed by speeding motorists had dropped from 110 to 31.

The reduction was to be met by targeting road safety measures at collision blackspots and other areas where children were particularly vulnerable. The roll out of speed cameras, speed bumps and 20 mph zones began. Sadly much of the local press complained vigorously against such initiatives, either commenting directly in editorials or articles, or by permitting the most squalid of local residents space in the readers comments sections to write the most appalling anti-road safety material imaginable. My technique of using the language of the “shock-jock” against those on the extreme right wing of society (the utterly selfish fringe) took them by surprise, but it was very difficult indeed to get such material published in an unsympathetic press. Only once, in all my years of campaigning, has a national paper (The Metro) ever published a substantially unedited an item of mine in which I used Clarkson’s language against him.

Over the years I have had cause to vigorously pursue the local press, for instance The Echo over the front page item attacking the police for checking driver speeds as they entered a residential area in Rayleigh. I challenged the former editor of the Yellow Advertiser over his reports on vandals damaging local speed cameras and, more recently, I challenged The Leigh Times group in November 08 over an appalling “Voice of Leigh” item in which that paper slammed the roll out of speed cameras and speed bumps around the town.

Challenging the media in a forthright manner did not come without a cost to me personally. It is now a fairly well known fact that I was eventually forced to move home as a result of inaccurate reporting on my campaign to get Southend council to reduce the Southchurch Boulevard 40 mph limit to 30 mph (the road has two schools and community centres used by the elderly). Some local louts heard the inaccurate reports and threatened my family, eventually forcing me to move to protect them.

But a separate consideration at the back of my mind was always a fear that, if I were to challenge the press for supporting the abuse of the nation’s children, my other environmental campaigns would suffer. I always feared that the press would deny me coverage of other environmental campaigns if they resented me for stopping them dead in their tracks for irresponsible work against road safety measures which were primary in place to protect the most vulnerable section of society – our children.

So surely it must be true that our politicians have to self censor to avoid conflict with the press. If that is true then far from being the defenders of freedom of speech, the press are actually enemies of it. Certainly Max Clifford has a strong view on that issue and surely few know better than him! But, if it happens locally we would certainly want to hear about it and ensure the truth comes out.

This being my first article for EyeonSouthend, and hopefully not my last, I ought to comment further upon press attitudes to speeding. The Leigh Times has again ventured into this territory, recently seeking to have the newly introduced speed bumps in Pall Mall re-engineered to make them lower. Why? This was a notorious rat-run, immediately next to Leigh North Street Junior School. The only thing shocking about the speed bumps in Pall Mall is that the residents and school staff had to wait so long to see them installed.

There is nothing wrong with the height of the bumps, unless you are driving a formula 1 racing car! The height is no different to those throughout most of Westborough Ward, and is totally appropriate to an area where children are especially vulnerable.

To those drivers who have complained about the new bumps I ask them this: Do you really want to go back to the days when speeding drivers killed 110 children every year, do you want to stick at around 30 children killed a year (5 or 6 times more than the paedophiles kill every year) or do you support road safety campaigners in seeking to make yet more progress – driving down average speeds in residential and rural areas? Just how many children do you want to see die for your convenience?

But there are wider issues of concern. There is the obesity epidemic affecting society and of particular concern is childhood obesity. If we continue to reduce driver speeds around town and make the streets sufficiently safe for children to walk and cycle to school we will get lower childhood obesity levels, such as those experienced in the Netherlands – the home of pedestrian and cycle safety. Do the anti-child, anti road safety, brigade really want to see children trapped in a toxic childhood; never being allowed to play outside, stifled indoors, playing often violent computer games? That may be what the (usually right wing) louts are willing to accept as a price for their bit of fun or convenience, but I genuinely do not believe that is what most people want for our young and our society at large.

Indeed I would go further and say that around 85% of people support road safety measures designed to protect children. The only group in society that appear to consistently campaign against such measures are journalists. Why is it that this profession should so often stand shoulder to shoulder with the paedophiles – those willing to harm children for their fun or convenience? Over the years I have given it a good deal of thought. I have asked myself why the average journalist has such vastly different attitudes to the average nurse or teacher. Perhaps it is because the nurse sees the brutal reality of driving too fast and the teacher understands the wider social implications. The journalist on the other hand only sees the need to get that item of news and pictures back to the news-desk in time for the next tight deadline – and speed reduction measures can only ever get in the way of that.

So the next time you see an item relating to speed in the press or hear an item on the radio ask yourself what is going on in the mind of the reporter? Is s/he tearing at the heart of our humanity and decency? And, more importantly, ask yourself if you are sufficiently independent of mind to reject what the press are trying to sell. If you can think for yourself, and you don’t accept child abuse, even when journalists suggest it is fine, what are you going to do about it?

If you don’t want another 30 children to be killed by speeding drivers this year then join us – join one of the manner road safety campaign groups (Roadpeace, Brake, etc) or join an environmental campaign group. Together we can stop the nation’s journalists. Yes you can!

Jon Fuller

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