Who are you calling critical?


There’s no mistaking Neil Mitchell’s opinion about Critical Mass (CM). When he regularly gets his dander up about the monthly bicycle ride, his morning talkback radio program on Melbourne’s 3AW resounds with his disgust and the outcry of the carefully selected callers.

What is CM? It is a bicycle ride through inner-city peak hour traffic once a month that provides a platform to advocate for cyclists’ rights, transport and related social issues. CM’s censure of the oil economy — its suggestion that demand for petrol is environmentally irresponsible — makes it a movement often portrayed in media outlets as being at odds with ‘mainstream’ interests.

Friday evening is the time chosen as the most effective for commuter cyclists to make their presence felt. Participants (‘Massers’) gather at a central location at 5.30 or 6 pm and ride as a group through the CBD and inner city. CM does have an effect on other traffic during the ride, but, despite this, the police, usually the Bicycle Patrol, attend many of the events in Australia and facilitate the basic progression of the ride.

Massers would like their rides to be covered as fun events with an important message. They want the media to report the issues that they are raising as legitimate concerns. However the news coverage, when there is any, primarily quotes opponents of CM, usually focuses on ‘disruption of traffic’ and is often distorted or inaccurate.

An extreme example of this occurred during Melbourne CM’s ninth birthday event (billed as CM9) in November 2004.
CM9 proposed a double whammy for Melbourne’s ninth birthday celebration, with a ride through the Burnley Tunnel. Transurban, the corporation that owns and operates the bridge, the tunnel and the CityLink network, dislikes CM invading their property, disrupting their revenue flow and giving them a bad name.

Since CM began riding the bridge in 2000 and the tunnel in 2001, Transurban have sought ways to stop the ride going ahead. On 22 November, police Superintendent Mick Williams announced on Neil Mitchell’s 3AW program that police would not allow CM to ride through the tunnel. This was a dramatic shift from usual police policy.

Williams warned that there would be police officers at the entrances preventing the ride from going through. He said there would be fines of up to $300 for disobeying a police officer and potential five-year jail terms for reckless conduct by cyclists attempting to join traffic on the connecting Monash Freeway.

Williams’s cited reason for the police crackdown was that ‘the community is sick of this and we are listening to what the community is saying.’ (Dan Silkstone, ‘Cyclists riding in tunnel protest face jail,’ The Age, November 23, 2004).

A police contact friendly to CM offers another view. He points out that the Bicycle Patrol was previously left to deal with policing the CM rides as they saw fit. Sometimes the officer in charge was called to account by superior officers for incidents that occurred on the rides, but the decisions of the Bicycle Patrol were respected because of their expert position. The directive to stop CM riding through the tunnel did not result from the advice of Bicycle Patrol nor was it decided in consultation with them. It is clear, however, that communication had occurred between Victoria police and the company prior to the announcement.

Williams volunteered in his very first appearances in the media about the CM9 crackdown that the police had ‘had a number of meetings over the past few weeks with Transurban’ (Neil Mitchell program). The following day The Age quoted Transurban spokeswoman Jane Calvert who reiterated ‘we have been working closely with the police on this matter and are confident they will do their job.’
This alleged cooperation between Transurban and Victoria Police went unquestioned in the media until Williams appeared on the Morning Program with Jon Faine on 774, and Jon Faine asked him why CityLink roads were protected over others. Williams appeared to evade answering the question and Faine didn’t pursue the issue.

On the same program, a ‘Masser’ called Graham phoned in to push the point but failed to spark a debate. He made a second point too, that the figures mentioned by Transurban and quoted widely in the media (that 8,000 cars were delayed for two hours during CM actions), were inaccurate. This also failed to provoke Faine, who seemed more interested in CM’s failings in the public relations game:

Faine: Graham … if you want to put your spin out there, you’ve got to get yourself organised and stop being an amorphous mass …

The negative language used to describe CM was predictably congruent across the different publications and stations. Every TV news report (including the ABC) stated that the proposed route was a ‘threat’ to ride through the tunnel, though how a proposed intention was a ‘threat’ was not explained.

Channel 7 and the Herald Sun repeatedly used the word ‘chaos’ to describe the effect CM has on traffic. Where both pro- and anti-CM views were represented, all of the mainstream media gave precedence to the opponents of CM in their coverage.

Williams was the primary source for most of the stories because he was initiating the news, but a wide range of voices antithetical to the movement were sought and were featured more prominently. Channel 7 news (26 November, 2004) collected vox pop from motorists in their car seats and presented four complaining that CM9 would cause delays. The 7 crew also stopped cyclists for comment and showed one saying, ‘I can’t see any good for cyclists from it,’ with two others expressing reservations about the ride.

The Herald Sun contacted the RACV whose manager of government relations, David Cumming, said the clampdown was ‘a long time coming’ in an article that contained no comment from a CM perspective. (Shelley, Hodgson and Geraldine Mitchell, ‘Jail threat forces late back-pedal,’ Herald Sun, 27 November 27, 2004).

ABC TV news, ABC TV Stateline and 774 asked the general manager of Bicycle Victoria, Harry Barber, for comment. He told 774 ‘I think the community struggles to understand this exercise.’
But the most distasteful comment came from Williams himself, quoted in The Age: ‘It’s not all students, unemployed people and rent-a-crowd types … there are a number of professional people from the corporate sector, a number of public servants and people from local government. We don’t want them to risk prosecution.’

Williams’ comment speaks for itself. The comment went unchallenged by the conventional media — presumably because students, unemployed people and ‘rent-a-crowd types’ aren’t part of their audience.

Despite the media furore, CM9 went off like any CM. The Bicycle Patrol supported the Mass as usual and the ride ended in St Kilda without incident. If not for the 180 police stationed around Transurban’s property it would have been just like any other last Friday of the month in Melbourne. Yet the media frenzy illustrates the difficulty CM has in gaining balanced and comprehensive media coverage.

Journalists are supposed to have the investigative skills to hunt down the facts, especially where a sudden policy shift has occurred. At the very least, media outlets should be asking the most powerful players, Victoria Police and Transurban, some hard questions.

Sydney and Melbourne are the only communities who have regular rides but irregular rides occur in Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Hobart, Canberra, Lismore, Newcastle, Parramatta, Woolongong, Mildura, Bendigo and probably other places: www.criticalmass.org.au

The premier Australian CM affiliated website is Sydney’s www.bikesarefun.org

For a worldwide listing see http://criticalmassrides.info/

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.