Reading the carbon small print

Is News Ltd hell-bent on regime change in Australia? The Gillard government thinks so, and the company's flagship title, The Australian, has devoted acres of newsprint explaining why it is not.

Even if it were, is regime change outside the gamut of responsible journalism? Of course not – when it is done openly, regime change is an entirely legitimate objective. If the fourth estate can't depose bad governments, who but fire and stone-hurling crowds can?

Conversely, where a covert campaign against a government exists, journalists are in clear breach of the ethical codes that govern free and independent journalism around the globe.

In that respect, The Australian does itself few favours with today's headlines. I can't help thinking that the paper's nation-leading journalists will see a disconnect between what they write, and the way it is 'packaged' by the paper's editors and sub-editors.

The news today is that, for the first time in months, the government has gained ground in the polls and has seen a substantial increase in support for its carbon pricing policy.

Today's Newspoll shows a 20 per cent jump in support for the tax, from 30 to 36 per cent of voters, and a 3 point fall in opposition, from 56 to 53 per cent.

Labor's record-low primary vote of 27 per cent has gained 2 points, to 29 per cent, while the Coalition lost 2 points to sit on 47. That leaves Tony Abbott's two-party preferred lead at 56/44 compared to last fortnight's 58/42.

To keep things above board, let me remind readers that I have written strongly in support of pricing carbon; that I consider the government's policy a clumsy and highly compromised approach to doing so (but better than nothing); and consider the Coalition’s alternative to be deeply flawed (The true cost of carbon confusion, July 14).

But look at how The Australian handles a major turnaround in carbon-pricing politics – rather than leading with the headline 'Poll shows leap in support for carbon tax', the front page is dominated instead by the headline 'Union joins business to savage ALP'.

A closer reading of that story reveals an attack by Transport Workers Union boss Tony Sheldon on workplace relations minister Chris Evans – if we're going to tax heavy vehicle users, he is arguing, the IR minister must protect drivers from cost pressures and ensure they do not take to driving recklessly to make up lost income.

Evans, says Sheldon, "has not been able to implement government policy" that would provide this protection. It's an attack on Evans, but in favour of government policy.

Nestled beneath this lead story is the relatively tiny typeface headline proclaiming "Poll shows voters' chill to carbon tax plan wearing off".

In the online edition that becomes "Newspoll delivers a slight warming" on the home-page, and on the article itself, "Newspoll delivers a slight warming to carbon tax chill".

Since the carbon tax details were released a fortnight ago, many reports have surfaced of jumpy Labor backbenchers starting to murmur that the policy will be their ruin, and that Julia Gillard may have to go the way of Kevin Rudd.

That, to my mind, makes today's Newspoll an even bigger story – Gillard at last has something to keep the assassins at bay, if only for a while.

The Australian has claimed recently that it has long been a proponent of an ETS approach to containing carbon emissions, but in the interests of keeping news and editorial separate, the view should only be expressed in the editorial column. On the front page, the news is just 'the news'.

But again, look at the headlines. Former Telstra and Suncorp boss Ziggy Switkowski took the lead headline on Saturday for suggesting there was a "whiff of illegitimacy" about the government. At Business Spectator, we value Switkowski's opinions very highly, and he has frequently written for us on a wide range of topics.

That said, there's another big story buried on page four. As all journos know, less important stories are shunted onto left-hand pages because readers' eyes naturally land on the right. This story is entitled "Abbott's emissions bid priced at $10 billion".

Why would anyone read that? We already know it's about $10 billion, because that's what the Coalition has already stated – "about $12 billion over the first four years" is how Senator George Brandis described it recently.

But look again. This story is talking about "$10 billion a year by 2020" and it notes that the cost of abatement in 2020 under the Direct Action policy would be a bit more than twice the cost of Labor's plan, as flawed as it is.

The story notes a "'direct action' response to climate change, which prevents companies buying carbon offsets overseas … would push up the costs of greenhouse abatement to $62 per tonne in real terms by 2020, up from $29 per tonne under the government's market-based scheme."

Surely at some point that should have made it to the front page under the headline "Direct Action to cost double Labor's plan".

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