BBC responds to our complaint: Cycling feature on the Nolan Live Show

Person at desk top computer
5 December 2017

Our letter to the BBC

Dear Tony Hall, Lord Hall of Birkenhead

RE: Cycling feature on The Nolan Live Show, Wednesday 15 November 2017 

I am lodging a complaint and seeking an apology for the cycling feature on The Nolan Live TV show which misrepresented Sustrans’ Bike Life report and for language and behaviour that was both highly offensive and potentially dangerous, and seemed to be supported by a worrying editorial bias.

Bike Life, a bi-annual report on the state of cycling in seven UK cities, found a high level of public support for the development of segregated cycle lanes.  No more so than in Belfast, where the survey by independent polling company, ICM Unlimited revealed that 81% of the population – people who cycle and people who don’t – supported this.

Sustrans was invited to be in the audience for the show but not given a right to reply when the presenter Stephen Nolan both misrepresented and dismissed the findings.

Mr Nolan introduced the topic: “Apparently you want more middle-aged men in lycra, this is according to a survey by the bike charity Sustrans, claiming that 81% of people here – I don’t know whether to believe this or not – support building more dedicated cycle lanes around Belfast, even if it means that motorists have less room on the road”. In a single sentence, Mr Nolan both misrepresented the survey – it was certainly not about ‘middle-aged men in lycra’ – and dismissed the findings of a statistically representative sample of 1,100 Belfast residents aged 16+.

This set the tone. While we had anticipated a debate, what followed was a dangerous rant dominated by Mr Hook accusing all cyclists of being lawbreakers. When the audience were asked for comments they came from the BBC’s Yvette Shapiro, one of Nolan’s producers, who had complained about selfish club cyclists on Twitter and received abuse via tweets in return. Her story fuelled Mr Hook’s rant, further fuelled by laughter from the audience, culminating in him comparing cyclists to Nazis and giving a Nazi salute.

Mr Hook may be a known sensationalist, but his stance was encouraged and almost endorsed by both the presenter and a Nolan show producer. Where in all of this are the BBC’s standards of impartiality and respect?

Behaviour that disseminates intolerance, hatred and discrimination is inappropriate and unacceptable and should not be encouraged or tolerated by the BBC. While the audience may laugh, the reality of such language impacts on attitudes to people who choose to cycle, whether they are men in lycra, women cycling to work, or young children cycling to school.

Painting people who choose to cycle as a menace on the road is not only deeply distorting of reality but risks legitimising aggressive behaviour towards vulnerable road users. It is a salutary reminder of the gravity of the subject that the morning after the broadcast a young man on a bicycle was knocked down by a van in Co Londonderry. The man in his 20s was critically injured and died two days later.

I expect an unqualified apology from the BBC to both Sustrans and the Department for Infrastructure, who jointly funded the report, for misrepresenting the research and not giving Sustrans the opportunity to balance the narrative. I also ask that BBC Northern Ireland and Mr Nolan apologise to people who cycle and the population as a whole for the offence caused by this programme.

Yours sincerely

Xavier Brice
CEO at Sustrans

Response from the BBC

30 November, 2017

Dear Mr Brice

Editorial Complaint - Nolan Live (CAS-4669767)

I’m replying to your recent complaints (we've received your webform contact and your letter to the Director General - both from 24 November) about the content and handling of a wide-ranging discussion about cycling, road usage and safety on an edition of Nolan Live which was broadcast on 15 November, 2017.

Our item began by referencing research which supports the increased provision of cycling lanes in Belfast. This was the prompt for our discussion, rather than its focus. What followed, counterpointed the views of two well-known commentators and included lively exchanges - reflecting their different positions on this discussion topic. George Hook’s assertions were robustly and repeatedly challenged by Malachi O’Doherty, who disputed the claim that all cyclists are the same and that they habitually break the rules of the road.

We also included video footage which highlighted the serious road safety issues affecting cyclists and then extended the discussion to explore the frustrations that can be felt by some motorists at being unable to easily overtake groups of cyclists on country roads. All of this was fast-moving, rather than in-depth, and it was intended to reflect/include differing viewpoints and experiences. We accept that it would have been helpful to have included an additional contribution from a cyclist’s perspective, but feel that this discussion was balanced both in terms of argumentation and the airtime given to our panellists.

We accept that George Hook’s comments about Brown Shirts and accompanying hand gesture were inappropriate. Both were challenged immediately by the programme’s presenter and in unequivocal terms. He stated several times that what had been said/done was ‘wrong’ and that it was ‘not funny’. We also took the decision to conclude the discussion item at this point and clearly regret any offence caused.

Strongly-held views can help to stimulate debate. And we know that cycling can sometimes divide opinion – and with varying degrees of seriousness. It is never helpful, however, when statements made for dramatic effect become offensive - thereby foreclosing on meaningful engagement with other people’s opinions and the subject matter under review.

We very much welcome audience feedback and are grateful to you for taking the time to get in touch. Your concerns have been discussed by the production team and shared with relevant BBC editorial colleagues.

Yours sincerely,

Shane Glynn

Managing Editor BBC NI Productions

Our view

We are very disappointed but not surprised by this response as it fails to address all the points we made. However, as a charity, we have to focus on the more important work of encouraging and enabling more people to cycle and this broadcast, together with the Bike Life report, has emboldened us to redouble our efforts.

The Bike Life Belfast report found that an overwhelming majority of the public (81%) – whether or not they cycle – want improved cycling infrastructure and we will continue to focus our efforts on achieving this.

If you would like to support our work through becoming a supporter and/or volunteering, do get in touch [email protected]