Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
As an appeal against the removal of its license looms, Uber’s recent charm offensive risks backfiring.
Back in September, London Mayor Sadiq Khan made a headline-grabbing stand against Uber: He canceled the ride-hailing app’s license to operate in the city, citing among its grounds Uber’s inadequate working conditions and failures to report sexual assault. But the ban has remained intentionally un-implemented during a long appeal process: Ubers by the thousands still ply the capital’s streets every day. Many people assumed that the city’s move was really about ramping up pressure before cutting a deal—not genuinely leaving the 3.5-million-user strong London market Uber-free.
But the company’s appeal is looming on June 25, and Uber is starting to look a little nervous. Last week, it applied for a shorter interim 18-month license, perhaps to give itself more of an opportunity to demonstrate to the city that it has turned over a new leaf. In the meantime, it has also unleashed a major nationwide publicity campaign to woo the public—a charm offensive that may now be on the verge of backfiring.
London’s city transit body, Transport for London (TfL), cited several reasons for revoking Uber’s license last year. They found that its medical and criminal record checks were incorrectly carried out and that it had been using Greyball technology to evade the police. Furthermore, they complained that Uber lengthened proceedings when its drivers committed criminal offenses, by reporting them to TfL but not directly to the police. And although it was not cited directly as a reason for the ban, Uber had also somewhat damaged its own standing by fighting (and losing) a court case trying to get its drivers recognized as employees, and thus entitled to standard employee protections.
Uber has had a year to address these criticisms. In May, it agreed to start sharing its data with TfL, a move that will making transit planning in the city altogether easier. Last month, it offered its European drivers access to a modest sick pay and injury package, at a cost of £2 ($2.7) a week. It has also being parading something of a hair shirt in public, with the company’s chief executive, Dara Khosrowshahi, admitting that in the past Uber had “called drivers ‘partners,’ but didn't always act like it.”
At the same time, the company has orchestrated a pageant of positive publicity, including the funding of a five-part documentary series for Channel Four’s streaming website featuring Uber drivers from around the country.
This publicity stream has been more like a flood in recent weeks, albeit a murky one. British media, for example, have been reporting that in the wake of publicized sexual assaults in Uber vehicles, the company was cleaning up its act by introducing a panic button to its app. But while the button has already launched in the U.S., Uber has not in fact announced any plan to roll it out in Britain. An article came out stating that plans to start an Uber flying taxi business in Paris rather than London were a “direct consequence of [Mayor] Khan refusing to renew Uber’s licence.” And this week, another story emerged of a heroic Uber driver tackling muggers who were assaulting a cyclist—in tandem with his passenger, the actor Benedict Cumberbatch. Missing from many British accounts was the fact that this incident actually occurred not recently, but last November.
This PR offensive has not prevented a seriously alarming report coming out more or less under the radar. Last week, British politics website Open Democracy alleged that London’s main newspaper, the Evening Standard, had sold a package that included the promise of two years of positive coverage to major companies, including Uber and Google, for the sum of £500,000 apiece. According to Open Democracy (which did not detail its sources), company representatives that the Standard pitched to were offered positive coverage presented within regular news, not clearly marked advertorial content—a big breach of the classic “church and state” firewall between a news organization’s editorial and business sides.
In response, the Evening Standard strongly denied the allegations, insisting in a statement that its “editorial independence is and remains guaranteed in the contracts we sign.” So far, the paper has not instigated legal proceedings. But in a city where it is the main dedicated newspaper (as opposed to London-based national newspapers), allegations of commercially induced bias in coverage of what is currently one of London’s most important news stories are very serious indeed.
This is not the first time the Evening Standard has faced accusations of conflicts of interest in its Uber coverage. When Uber’s license cancellation was announced last year, the paper published an editorial castigating the decision. Its author was the paper’s editor, former British Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister) George Osborne, who was second in command to Prime Minister David Cameron before being sacked by Theresa May in 2016. One point the editorial failed to disclose was that Osborne also earns £650,000 ($873,000) a year working one day a week as a consultant for a major Uber investor, BlackRock.
None of this looks great for Uber, but for the company’s London drivers and customers, it’s still business as usual at the moment. London remains the company’s largest European market, and Uber’s sudden disappearance from the capital’s streets would indeed be disruptive. The general assumption thus remains that, despite this latest drama, Uber will get its license renewed in some form. Indeed, in the absence of a U.K. presence for the company’s U.S. rival Lyft, Uber’s role is probably greater in London than in other major international cities.
And there isn’t another mobility company of equal standing poised in the wings ready and waiting to leap in. Both Uber and London’s official black cabs face some competition from “minicabs,” as private hire cabs are called in Britain; these cannot be hailed, and their app presence is still nascent. There are tentative signs these alternative companies might attempt to step in should Uber get the boot. Black cabs could also see a spike in trade, although their somewhat higher prices mean theirs and Uber’s markets do not overlap completely. Any sudden departure of Uber from London might spark a backlash against TfL. But there’s no question that for Uber, the stakes are far higher in this game of chicken.
As crunch time nears, Uber’s charm offensive may still have been a miscalculation. Instead of highlighting its value to customers, it has provided a fleeting unflattering glimpse of corporate muscle-flexing behind the scenes.