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The Sunday Times Clean Air Campaign

Last month we pointed out that the UK Supreme Court ruling on pollution, while likely to affect the drivers of diesels, did not sound the death knell for those vehicles – just yet.
It was an important caveat. We were pointing out that, while many newspapers (correctly) identified the judgment as significant, and while it would certainly lead to legislative changes – and probably financial costs for diesel owners – it didn’t necessarily follow that changes would be immediate. And even if restrictions on NOx emissions were to be brought in, they would affect a great many things besides domestic cars – and given the huge rise in diesel ownership in recent years, it would be politically tricky to bring in penalties too hastily.

It now looks, however, as if they may be introduced a bit quicker than might have been anticipated. That’s because The Sunday Times has thrown its weight behind an ongoing “clean air campaign”. Despite the decline in print, the paper still has formidable clout as an investigative and campaigning media outlet, so it is a significant move which is likely to shift opinion amongst legislators.

It doesn’t really matter whether the newspaper is a stablemate of The Sun, which called diesels “deadly”, and that both are owned by Rupert Murdoch. Despite what many people think, proprietors don’t usually interfere that closely in a paper’s stance, while newspapers within the same group often take different political lines. (In The Sun’s case, it even differs with itself: the Scottish edition backs the SNP, while the English edition vehemently opposes them.)

What does matter is that campaigns of this sort can have great influence on public policy. The one group of people that still unquestionably pays close attention to media editorials is politicians. And the other significant factor is that newspaper campaigns, though they set out to inform, persuade and influence public opinion, are just as often a response to it.

A measure of that is that The Sunday Times followed up its very prominent launch – a front page story and a double-page spread on pages 4 and 5 – with a YouGov poll the following week, in which it found that 65 per cent of diesel drivers chose their cars for economic reasons: either because they were cheaper to run or because the tax was lower. But 39 per cent of them now thought that the government had been wrong to encourage people to switch to diesel, while 46 per cent thought that diesels were more dangerous to health than petrol cars.

Those findings suggest that the campaign is likely to meet a receptive audience – which in turn makes it more likely that the Government will respond to the shift in opinion. Supreme Court judgments and the threat of EU fines certainly concern governments, but don’t always lead to swift changes in policy – indeed, MPs rather like reminding those bodies that Parliament shouldn’t be bossed around.

But, for all that, politicians know who actually is the boss, and it is the electorate. A newspaper campaign is often the first sign that public opinion has shifted, and carries the added danger of reminding advocates for change, and alerting those who hadn’t previously known about the issue.

A campaign warning of the health risks of pollution – even for those sceptical about the claim that air pollution causes 8 per cent of deaths in Britain – has a much more immediate impact than a remote threat such as climate change. Given how sharply opinion on that has changed because of media coverage, it’s likely that The Sunday Times campaign may just have an effect sooner rather than later.

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