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Jun 27, 2014

Fairfax gets it wrong on climate

Clive Palmer has saved the carbon price, said Fairfax! Except no, he hasn't. How did Fairfax get it so wrong?

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Fairfax got it wrong on climate change policy this week, leading to a series of messy and confusing stories. Did the company’s relentless downsizing play a part in the problem?

This is how Fairfax reported Clive Palmer’s climate announcement with Al Gore, made on Wednesday evening (this is page 1 of Thursday’s Age):

The story ran with this:

“Clive Palmer has thrown into chaos Tony Abbott’s plan to abolish the carbon tax, demanding the Prime Minister instead create an emissions trading scheme that would swing into action when Australia’s major trading partners adopt similar measures.”

Thursday’s SMH ran an editorial welcoming Palmer’s new approach to climate change, and even claiming it as an SMH idea:

The problem? This is not what Clive Palmer said at all. Fairfax got it wrong.

As Crikey told you in this story posted at 6.33pm on Wednesday, ie. 12 hours before The Age and the SMH dropped on your doormat, Palmer actually promised to vote down the carbon tax. In a separate promise, he said he would try to establish an ETS to take its place, but this would be attached to another bill (which may never pass Parliament). Palmer never said the carbon tax repeal was conditional on the ETS getting up. His senators are now poised to pass the carbon tax repeal bill — with no replacement ETS in sight.

So Fairfax’s “carbon tax blow to PM” was nothing of the sort. These stories gave the misleading impression that Palmer would insist on some form of a carbon price in exchange for repealing the carbon tax. It’s an inconvenient truth SMH columnist Michael Pascoe alluded to yesterday:

“The most likely translation is that today’s Sydney Morning Herald editorial is incorrect — Palmer’s willingness to axe the carbon tax is not contingent on the adoption of an ETS with the carbon price set at zero.”

The Age did partially wake up to what actually happened in time for today’s edition. The editorial is headed “Palmer’s climate con leaves us in the cold,” and argues that Palmer’s announcement was a “Trojan horse”. But The Age still seems to think that Palmer will succeed in having his empty ETS (ie with a carbon price of zero) established. Why? The bill would have to get through the Coalition-dominated lower house — and we’ll leave it to Fairfax to explain how that’s going to happen.

The misleading original story was written by Fairfax journos James Massola, Mark Kenny and Heath Aston. None have extensive experience writing in depth on the complicated, challenging area of Australian climate change policy. The Fairfax journalists who would have got the story right — most notably Lenore Taylor — have left (she’s at The Guardian). Fairfax staffers Ben Cubby and Adam Morton are both across climate policy, but have shifted to other roles at the company.

The moral of the story? News organisations who lose experienced policy reporters will see their coverage decline, leaving readers the poorer. And Fairfax’s early deadlines may not have helped on this occasion.

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