A live BBC discussion programme descended into farce last night when one of the journalist contributors pulled a Nazi salute and accused all cyclists of "wearing Brown shirts and singing the Horst Wessel song." The audience laughed at this gibe from George Hook, a controversial pundit and broadcaster.
The segment aired on BBC's Nolan Live in Northern Ireland. The piece – which starts on BBC iPlayer at 47 minutes in to the hour-long programme – was supposed to be about the Bike Life report from Sustrans which claims that the majority of British people want to see cycleways installed even if that means taking space away from motorists. If the audience's reaction to that suggestion, and the "cyclists are Nazis" comment, are anything to go by the Sustrans survey may not be as representative as claimed.
Nolan – not a noted lover of cycling – invited Hook on the programme to give an anti-cycling point of view (for which he has previous). Author and broadcaster Malachi O’Doherty put the case for cyclists.
Hook said: "Cyclists want the road, the cycle lane and the pavement, yet they make no contribution whatsoever to their benefit."
O’Doherty refuted this "road tax" argument but then Hook accused cyclists of being "fanatics" who mow down pedestrians.
"I'm now in constant terror that a cyclist will come whizzing along a footpath and knock me down," complained Hook. "In every urban area in Ireland, cyclists are travelling at twice the speed of a motor car."
He gave the average speed of a car as 15kph. He added that cyclists "break every known law of the road" and he agreed when he was asked whether he thinks "all the crime on the roads is committed by cyclists."
Nolan then introduced one of his show's producers who was in the audience because of a Twitter fight she was involved in during the summer. The BBC's Yvette Shapirotweeted: "Driving anywhere on a summer Sunday is a pain. Roads clogged with lycra warriors pursuing their hobby on everybody else's time."
A number of cycling-focussed Twitter users took her to task for her tweet, and she told the Nolan show her "fairly innocuous" comment “unleashed 48 hours of the most extreme trolling and abuse."
She repeated her claim that cyclists take up too much space on the roads and Nolan agreed. O'Doherty tried to explain that roads were for everyone, and that cyclists were not part of a “uniformed cult”.
Hook picked up on the word "cult" and repeated it a number of times. Out of nowhere he then claimed cyclists "used to wear brown shirts, sing the Horst Wessel song and have a sign." At the word "sign" he gave a Nazi salute.
The camera cut to the audience, many of whom laughed at Hook's comment and Hitler salute.
Without a shred of irony, Hook added: "These guys make rude remarks to people."
In September, Hook was suspended by Ireland's Newstalk programme for some distasteful comments about rape. He later apologised on Twitter for these "unacceptable" comments, but he has not rowed back his cyclists-are-Nazis comments. Instead, he tweeted this evening that his comment and salute was "made in response to hate speech against a member of the audience." (That would be Shapiro.)
This tweet – he has nearly 200,000 followers – is his first since September 9th. Interestingly, he did not defend his comment as a "joke". Instead, it's clear that it was made in reaction to Shapiro's serious comment. [Hook has now deleted his Twitter account.]
Malachi O'Doherty is a regular on Radio Ulster's Talkback and has written books about the Troubles as well as a 2008 book about cycling, On My Own Two Wheels: Back in the Saddle at 60 which charts his journey back to health after he was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. (O'Doherty has 4,200 followers on Twitter.)
Sustrans has said the coverage of the Bike Life report on the show was "inappropriate and unacceptable", and the charity is to write a formal letter of complaint.
The cyclists-are-Nazis trope is becoming depressingly familiar. In 2015, former chancellor of the exchequer Lord Lawson told his fellow peers in the House of Lords that the building of cycleways in London was "doing more damage to London than almost anything since the Blitz."
And earlier this year a Catholic priest told his flock that the creation of a cycleway next to a London church would "do our community more harm [to the] expression of our Christian identity than the Luftwaffe managed with its wartime bombs."