Opportunities to celebrate media diversity do not come along very often, but it seems that today is one of them.

Or is it?

This morning’s newspapers contain the best ornaments to Australian financial and political reporting taking very different lines on the decision by Toyota to build a hybrid Camry at its Altona plant, backed by State and Federal Government subsidies.

Diversity in opinion and analysis is one thing — but the luminaries don’t seem to be able to agree on the facts, let alone the weight that should be given to those facts.

It seems to be a battle of the spins, and who has bought which spin.

And diversity lasts only a short while. The pack soon reforms when someone – in this case The Australian – gives a strong lead.

The Australian today led with a story spiking the tyres of the Rudd and Brumby Government’s attempt to take credit for the Toyota deal with a story by Philip King and Matthew Franklin claiming that the decision to build the Camry would have been made anyway, and the taxpayer funded subsidy was not necessary. The source is Toyota.

But in The Age motoring writer Ian Porter had an exactly opposite line. In a page four story “Last Ditch Effort Won Hybrid For Altona” Porter claims that the Camry would have gone to Thailand but for last minute Rudd and Brumby intervention.

Porter equates it to “kicking a goal after the siren to win the game” and says we only have the Camry because of Rudd and Industry Minister Kim Carr “running flat out” since coming to Government to get Australia back into the game.

“It was the intervention of the Victorian Premier, John Brumby, and the advent of the Rudd Government that revived the hybrid plan.”

Porter seems to have missed, or not given weight to, the Toyota claim that they would have made the decision in any case and that the subsidy had nothing to do with it. He also makes the point that this is really only the beginning of a long term plan, and the real success will come only if Toyota decides to build its new generation of hybrids here.

Such diversity. But it only lasts so long. Ian Porter’s piece in The Age seems to have disappeared. If it is present online, I can’t find it. Meanwhile in breaking news The Age site now carries an AAP report of what The Australian has said.

Diversity crumbles at News Limited as well. The Herald Sun hard copy this morning had a prominent and uncritical boost by Gerard McManus, no less, with Nick Higginbottom the headlined “Hybrid hallelujah”, with a picture of Brumby doing the Toyota jump with Toyota staff, and an editorial headlined “Going Green is the Way to Go”, opining that the subsidy should be used to bring down the price of the cars.

But by early morning the online version of The Hun had been altered so that the main story on the issue reflected, and linked to, the negative take in the Australian.

The Age is still mainly upbeat about the decision. That luminary to economic reporting, Tim Colebatch says on the front page of the hard copy, and still online the Camry decision is “likely to be the start of a wholesale reorientation of Australian car manufacturing towards cleaner vehicles.” He also draws attention to the lack of information on the fine detail of the subsidy and how it will work. Meanwhile the Age Editorial describes the plan as a “wise first use” of the Government’s green car fund.

The Australian Financial Review (not available online except to subscribers) yesterday had a piece by John Kerin in Kyoto attributing the deal to “months of private commercial and diplomatic negotations” between Carr and Toyota, but today reports the Toyota claims that they would have built the Camry here in any case, while also crediting Rudd with “jump starting” a green car industry.

So who is right? Would the Camry have come here anyway, or can the Government take credit?

It seems to me that the answer may well lie in a battle of the spins. Of course the Government spin doctors would have been spruiking for all they were worth to try and take the credit for the deal.

But Toyota also has spin doctors, and they would not want the company to be seen as the play thing of politicians.

Which way will the story go now? It seems that the Toyota and anti-Government spin is in the ascendancy, and for the next twenty four hours at least I predict the Government will get a kicking. The pack will fall in line, unless Rudd manages to come up with something to set the hare running in a new direction.

How well is the public served by this coverage?

There is a legitimate debate to be had about the evils of protectionism versus the merits of a government with an activist industry policy. But that debate is likely to be buried under the much easier game of “who’s up, who’s down, and who deserves a kicking”.

It will be interesting to revisit this issue in a few years and look back at today’s reporting. As economist Nick Gruen says, buried in The Australian’s mostly negative coverage “it might be a success, it might be a mistake”.

Hallelujah. Not everyone feels obliged to know it all instantly.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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