Wednesday, September 1, 2010

On people who are less trustworthy than politicians

It's a sad fact that journalists are lazy buggers - and if they think they can get away with not working, they will.

Witness the coverage of last week's publication, in the UK, of the Department for Transport's (whatever happened to the Department of Transport? Fed up with people asking whether they were "for" or "against" it?) latest efforts to siphon obscene amounts of public money into private investors' pockets. Oops, sorry, I should have spelled that "... periodic survey of public attitudes to traffic congestion".

There wasn't much coverage, but such as there was, was clearly based on the Department conjunction Transport's press release. The BBC's headline is "Half of UK road users support usage-based road charging". And other outlets are no better. Even the normally-cynical El Reg has swallowed this line of spin.

There is no indication that any of these journalists has read the survey itself. If they had, they might have noticed that's not what it says.

True, over half of people are against the present system, and I don't blame them, because road tax became indefensible around the time horse-drawn carts became rare. But they don't express approval of the options being pushed here. Quite the opposite: when asked "Do you think a new charging scheme is fair?" - without giving any information about what it might involve - over half of those questioned return an unequivocal and full-throated "No!". Barely one-quarter say "Yes". And this opinion has actually hardened over the past few years.

The headline figure, as far as I can tell, comes from asking whether the current system "should be changed so that the amount people pay relates more closely to how often, when and where they use the roads" - that elicits about 50% of "Ayes". But faced with the more specific suggestions that people who drive on busy roads, or at peak times, should pay more, that proportion drops to 25% or less.

If you're advocating road pricing, those answers don't add up. The public appears to be "confused". Me, I think the public understands the issue far better than the people framing the survey, and certainly better than the journalists covering it.

Fortunately, there is one group of people whose livelihood really does depend on interpreting this kind of survey correctly: politicians. Things have come to a pretty pass when I'm appealing to politicians to save us from the idleness and corruption of journalists, but that's where I find myself today. And the UK's coalition government, bless its insecure little heart, has correctly divined what its civil servants are up to here. It "has ruled out for the duration of this Parliament national road pricing on existing roads and any preparation for such schemes beyond that time".

Let's hear it for the politicians...

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