HS2’s uphill media battle

I NEVER cease to be amazed by the media’s apparently hostile reports about the HS2 scheme.

On 5 June the proposal to restore the Stonebridge Railway and enable many Midlands’ passengers to get directly to Birmingham Airport and the planned HS2 Birmingham Interchange station was published coincidental with distribution of Railnews edition 196.

That morning – as co-author of the report with quantity surveyor Michael Byng – I did a lengthy interview about the project with BBC Radio Coventry and Warwickshire. I was then interviewed briefly during the lunchtime edition of the BBC-TV Midlands Today programme, and a lengthier interview was recorded for use later in the day.

But Midlands Today carried no more in later editions — perhaps because supportive comments about how our plan would improve links with HS2 were starting to be made. 

Next day, 6 June, The Coventry Evening Telegraph appeared with the big headline ‘Coventry City Council ditches opposition to HS2.’

The report stated: “Labour and the Conservatives at Coventry Council House have until now been united in opposing HS2 – mainly because it would not stop at Coventry Station on the West Coast Main Line.”

But The Coventry Telegraph noted: “The new council leadership … think ending Coventry’s formal opposition will give the city a better chance of negotiating the best possible outcome for services in and out of Coventry station – and links to HS2.”

This was just a day after we had published our proposals – which had been made known in advance to Coventry City Council and local MPs – to restore the railway between Hampton-in-Arden and Whitacre Junction, providing the opportunity for direct services between Coventry and the proposed international terminal for trains and planes at the HS2 Interchange.

The Coventry Telegraph’s story was repeated in The Birmingham Mail, but news that Coventry City Council was withdrawing its opposition to HS2 was not reported by the BBC.

That is, until 28 June – over THREE WEEKS LATER – and only, it seemed, because Coventry City Council’s decision was now being criticised by Coventry South MP Jim Cunningham, who had been one of just 37 MPs to have voted against HS2 after a parliamentary debate on 26 June, while 325 MPs voted for it to go ahead.

The BBC Midlands Today report on 28 June included an interview with Stop HS2 campaign manager Joe Rukin, but said no one from Coventry City Council had been available for interview.

This seemed to me not untypical of the uphill battle HS2 continues to face with news media reports about the project.

Many in the media seem to delight in highlighting what the critics of HS2 say and do, however limited that opposition may be.

Just look at what happened with reports of the debate on 26 June about the proposed HS2 Paving Bill. If finally approved, this will pave the way for the development and planning of the line and allow spending by the Department for Transport to get the project up and running.  It is also intended to ensure that phase 2 of the Y-shaped project – encompassing the North West and Yorkshire and shorter journey times to the North East and to Scotland – is taken forward by subsequent governments

Former Welsh Secretary, Cheryl Gillan, who is totally opposed to HS2 as MP for Chesham and Amersham, tabled an amendment on 26 June seeking to delay the Paving Bill — but her proposal was defeated with a massive majority of 288 MPs.

However, the headline next day in the Belfast Telegraph was typical of many: “Over 20 rebel Tories oppose HS2,” it said.

Not only did the Belfast Telegraph highlight only the small number of Tory MPs who wanted to delay the Paving Bill – rather than all those who had supported it – but it actually went on to report that: “A vote to give the Bill a second reading was defeated by 330 to 27, Government majority 33 [sic].” Whereas, it should have said:  “A vote to give the Bill a second reading was carried by 330 to 27, a Government majority of 303.” But, then, what’s the difference between for and against, and a zero between three and three?

Nearer to home and the proposed route, the Wolverhampton Express & Star carried the headline ‘Campaigners’ fury as HS2 ploughs on’ and reported: “Campaigners and MPs in Staffordshire have spoken of their anger after a controversial Bill which paves the way for the HS2 was given the go-ahead – amid rising costs.”

Certainly, nothing about HS2 seems to be straightforward. In another part of Staffordshire the Lichfield Mercury reported the topsy-turvy news that: “Lichfield MP Michael Fabricant was set to vote in favour of the [Paving] Bill despite being ‘totally opposed to HS2 as it is currently constituted’.”

After the second reading was agreed substantially on 26 June, the Bill now moves to its committee stage during which MPs will examine and amend it in detail and then return it to the House of Commons for a third reading before the House rises for the summer recess on 18 July.  If the Bill is approved then it will move to the House of Lords, which must also agree it before it becomes an Act of law.

One of the few media outlets that appeared to give a more balanced view of the latest developments was The Northampton Chronicle, which carried one report about South Northants Conservative MP Andrea Leadsom under the headline ‘HS2 overspend attacked by Northamptonshire MP’ while in the same edition it published another story headed ‘MP urges Government to “hurry up” and build HS2’ – a report that another Tory, Brian Binley, representing Northampton South, had urged the Government to speed up building the new line to help Northampton’s “long suffering passengers.”

Mr Binley told the Evening Chronicle: “I am glad the House of Commons voted to support the next stages in the HS2 project. For rail users on the West Coast Main Line – particularly those long-suffering passengers from Northampton – this is a scheme which cannot arrive fast enough.

“A good number of commuters feel the line is already more than full when they travel, and the 2026 capacity crisis looms larger with every passing day. Not only do I wish HS2 good speed, I want the Government to get on with this vital infrastructure project. It will make a very big difference.”

It would be good if other news media gave more balance to their reports, like the Northampton Chronicle. But how many journalists these days want to let the facts get in the way of a good story and headline?

Not many, perhaps – but all the writers at Railnews will continue to ensure railway news is reported fairly . . . which is something we know our readers value greatly.

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