The Press Complaints Commission has received 200+ complaints about a column in The Times by Matthew Parris which was headlined 'What is smug and deserves to be decapitated?'
200+ complaints is high and going on figures for 2007, it would make the Parris column the third most complained about article of 2008, with time yet for more complaints.
Parris had started his article thus: "A festive custom we could do worse than foster would be stringing piano wire across country lanes to decapitate cyclists."
In his latest column, Parris said: "I offended many with my attack on cyclists. It was meant humorously but so many cyclists have taken it seriously that I plainly misjudged. I am sorry."
In an email to BikeBiz executive editor Carlton Reid, the editor of The Times, James Harding, said he was a cyclist and that Parris was "exaggerating for effect."
Harding wrote: "As someone who regularly rides to work and who likes to go on cycling holidays, I shared your alarm, initially fearing that Matthew had it in for me too. But I think it was immediately clear that he was exaggerating for effect.
"While I admire the passion of the cycling lobby and count myself one of their number, I think we do ourselves no favours when we lose our sense of humour and I hope that you, like me, will continue to enjoy Matthew Parris’s excellent writing."
Soon after publication of the article, the internet was ablaze with complaints about the Parris column. There's a round-up of links here.
A "sick" and "hilarious" parody of the Parris piece – using the same text but replacing the word 'cyclist' - can be found here.
In reply to James Harding, the BikeBiz executive editor offered to take Parris on a bike ride:
I don't think anybody was fooled that Matthew Parris was being serious. Cyclists knew he was "exaggerating for effect".
But would the The Times allow an exaggerated comment about throwing a brick from a motorway bridge by a columnist who didn't like cars? Or a comment about putting sleepers on tracks by a columnist who doesn't like trains?
Parris could have made all his points without the threat of murder. One of the key reasons so many folks are upset by The Times allowing the piano wire comment to go forward is the fact this is a real technique used on cycle paths. However, the material usually used is fishing line.
I'm the editor of BikeBiz, the trade magazine, and I've had angry comments from MDs of major bike companies. Nobody can quite believe that The Times allowed the first sentence and provided a headline bigging it up.
And, ironically, as has been pointed out all over the internet and in comments on The Times piece, Parris got the wrong target anyway. Cyclists don't carry bottles of Lucozade, they carry water bottles in water bottle cages. The most likely litterer is, in fact, twentysomethings in muscle cars who don't want to sully their interiors. Such littering is a serious national problem and there's lots of room for many newspaper polemics on the subject but why start such an article with a bloody death threat, in jest or otherwise?
Matthew Parris is normally a fantastic writer but this column showed a serious lack of judgement on his behalf. That the piano wire comment got through the subbing process is also shocking.
Now, in the spirit of reconciliation and to show Mr Parris what a bottle cage is for, I'd like to invite him on a bike ride. He's a fit guy. I believe he runs marathons. If he agrees, I'll arrange a ride along a country lane using a top-of-the-range bike and as much or as little of the Lycra he seems to so deplore. Would you please pass on this invitation? I can arrange a bike and kit anywhere in the UK. I promise not to booby trap the route.