Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Age newspaper loves Greens policies, but hates the Greens

This blog entry is a letter that I sent to the Age newspaper this morning, objecting to the newspaper's coverage of the Greens on the previous Saturday. For overseas readers: the Melbourne Age has always been a progressive newspaper but struggles to maintain its role under the current management of its owners, Fairfax Media.

Last year the ALP government failed to get its legislation for an emissions trading scheme (ETS) through the upper house. The scheme was never popular with progressives but was even worse after amendments made following negotiations with the main conservative opposition (the government refused the Greens suggestion of a carbon tax).

With an election due around November this year, the ALP has shelved any reintroduction of the ETS until 2013. Two columnists in Saturday's Age managed to have a go at the Greens for opposing the legislation in the Senate.

I’m writing a general letter of objection to the coverage of the Greens and their policies on global warming in the Age of Saturday 1 May 2010, but also directed at the two columnists concerned, Tony Wright and Ross Gittins. Tony Wright’s column appeared in the Insight section of the paper and Ross Gittins’s appeared in the Business Day section (the business commentators seem to be Fairfax rather than Age journalists – this in no way lets the Age off the hook). For the record, I’m not a Greens member but I support and vote for the Greens.

It’s fascinating that the only direct endorsement of the Greens’ carbon tax proposal is not only buried in the business section of that edition, in Paddy Manning’s column, but seems to have produced a flurry of opposing opinion by other columnists (a spurious attempt at ABC-style ‘balance’?). Manning’s endorsement is also months after the fact – I’m not objecting to the views of this columnist, but to the Age’s willingness to publish a point of view that supports evidence-based policy only when that support is given far too late to matter.

In contrast, the coverage of the Greens in the columns by Gittins and Wright would have conspiracy theorists who fear anti-Greens censorship tearing up their Age subscriptions. It seems that the Age wants to have it both ways: present itself as a progressive paper by criticising government and opposition policies; then trashing, or more usually ignoring, the one party that offers a clear alternative. The ethos seems to be: ensure business as usual while enabling readers to feel vindicated in their anger about the complete inability of the large parties to pursue policies that are genuinely in the national interest.

The media is part of this deterioration in our democratic process. One of the problems is that journalists such as Wright and Gittins have taken on, to some extent, the twisted mindset of politicians. According to this mindset, there are two realities: what’s actually going on in the world; and the need to create an impression of government activity and relevance through spin. This second, alternative reality, born of the Canberra hothouse, is considered by the politicians to be far more important than actual reality, and is one of the major reasons the Labor government has failed to move effectively on just about every issue it has tried to tackle.

Unfortunately, some journalists also come to view this alternative reality as far more important than the real world. It is certainly much more beguiling, because it’s far easier to commentate a never-ending football match than to take a strong stand on matters such as democracy, human rights and social justice.

Take Wright’s column. He starts off in the real world, by giving an impassioned description of a recent Catalyst program that highlighted the effects of global warming on Antarctica’s ice sheet. He then turns his attention to government and opposition behaviour towards climate change, bemoaning the fact that ‘hardly anyone seemed to give a stuff’.

It would be logical for Wright to support the policies of the party that has done far more than either of the larger ones to both alert Australians to the true extent of the dangers of global warming, and to offer policies and targets that actually square up with the science and set us on the road to a renewable energy industry. But in his upside-down version of reality, the version he’s absorbed from the political spin-merchants, the leader of this party, Bob Brown, is an irrelevant ideologue. And the only one left with real integrity is the man who, at the time when the government’s climate change policy was being negotiated, made what was already a dog of an emissions trading scheme even worse – Malcolm Turnbull:

Bob Brown’s Greens … well, they just kept being the Greens, complaining that the government hadn’t taken their proposals seriously, which is another way of saying that they had played themselves out of the equation.

About the only politician of simple integrity still standing was Malcolm Turnbull.

This is outrageous. In implying that Bob Brown lacks integrity, Wright is denouncing one of the few politicians in the federal parliament who actually has any. (Brown’s opposition to unfair increases to parliamentary salaries is just one example.)

In contrast, Turnbull’s principles in relation to the ETS, principles which Wright lauds to the skies, were based on ensuring that the coal industry continued to flourish in Australia till kingdom come.

It’s disappointing for a reader to feel she is more cluey than the paper’s national affairs editor. The ETS (both pre- and post-Coalition versions) was a dog because:

• it offered compensation to polluters, doing the opposite of what an ETS should do, which is to encourage alternative energy, not to enable ‘business as usual’. The Age itself has reported that most of the compensation specified in the ETS legislation was unnecessary

• it locked in, for the long term, both this compensation and a low emissions reduction target, with the distinct possibility that if the government increased the pathetic 5 per cent target, it would be liable for a commensurate increase in compensation to the polluting industries

• the 5 per cent was a furphy anyway, because much of the reduction would have been obtained from investment in overseas carbon sinks

• the 5 per cent was an absolute target, discouraging citizens from making their own changes – for example, if I had switched my electricity supply to green energy, that would have increased my electricity provider’s ability to pollute elsewhere

• no one understood it!

Eminent climate scientists agreed that the ETS would be useless, as the Sydney Morning Herald reported.

Wright knows that the Greens were never merely naysayers, but offered a positive alternative, a carbon tax that might have squeaked through the Senate with the support of at least one of the two renegade Liberals and Nick Xenophon. Wasn’t the carbon tax option preferable to what’s happened now, with any action on carbon emissions being shelved till 2013?

This style of commentary illustrates the dangers of political commentators having the main say on climate change in the mainstream media. If the Age is to be relevant it needs to have a qualified science writer weighing up the parties’ climate change policies, not glorified football commentators like Wright.

Let’s now turn to Gittins. He makes an astounding claim in his column, yet doesn’t even attempt to back it up:

But why did the Greens pretend that 5 per cent was nothing when they must have known it wasn’t true? Because it didn’t suit the line they were running. It proves that the ever-virtuous Greens as [sic] just as capable of lying with statistics as the mainstream parties are.

Gittins produces no evidence to ‘prove’ that the Greens are ‘lying with statistics’ – he simply makes the assertion.

In considering the 5 per cent target too low, the Greens were merely listening to the climate scientists. The 5 per cent target has absolutely no relevance to climate science.

Similarly, Gittins seems to think that judging emissions reductions using per capita (head of population) measures would be a good thing. This is simply ludicrous because it would make targets meaningless as far as the actual climate is concerned. (In fact, the pollies would love it if they could use such standards to measure reductions in emissions, especially given Australia’s increasing population, and a couple have tried to do this.)

Again, it’s all about politics, not reality. Tony and Ross, isn’t ‘the greatest moral, environmental, economic and scientific challenge of our time’ worth more than a 5 per cent emissions reduction (on 2000 levels, by the way) and a bag of gold to the big polluters?

A newspaper in which the ‘ever virtuous’ Greens are treated with contempt because they’re more truthful, and the coal-friendly, Machiavellian Turnbull magically becomes ‘the only politician of simple integrity still standing’ may be terminally endangering its reputation as a progressive force.

It’s a shame, because the Age could be building strong customer loyalty based on an unswerving progressive vision, and on a genuine interest in engaging with its readers, rather like the UK’s Guardian. Instead, it seems almost entirely concerned with the advertising revenue it receives from the large parties. Many readers have already migrated online to sites like Crikey and New Matilda in response to the Age’s inability to respond adequately to the slow dismantling of democracy that Howard began and that Rudd has continued to engineer.

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