Yes, it's far better than that alternative, but Fairfax should be doing better

Fairfax newspapers seem to have a conscious policy of identifying with certain issues they presumably think are popular with their readers. In my area of interest – urban affairs – The Age often takes predictable and specific lines on certain topical matters.

Whatever the commercial advantages of such a strategy might be, there’re clear public interest risks in a media organ taking a partisan view. One is that conflicting views and facts might be deliberately excluded from public debate.

Here’s a current example – direct from the pages of The Age – of the potential dangers of partisanship.

This prominent page 3 news report in The Age last Tuesday (July 24), Doncaster railway line ‘could be built for $840m’, reported on a new study led by Professor Peter Newman. The key message is a new 12 km rail line to Melbourne’s east could be built for the unbelievably low cost of just $840 million.

The Doncaster study hasn’t been released publicly, but it was given to The Age. The paper followed up next day with an enthusiastic editorial, A rail link we need, and one we don’t, strongly endorsing the proposed rail line (and opposing the proposed East-West road link).

The study was commissioned by six eastern suburbs municipalities with an interest in the rail line. It was undertaken by Professor Newman’s Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute, in conjunction with RMIT University and global engineering firm Arup.

I wrote about the report last week (Is this rail line too good to be true?). I was critical of the costings and the patronage estimates reported in The Age, which in my opinion are way, way out of line with reality. As I indicated in my analysis, they significantly under-estimate the cost of a new line and significantly over-state the likely patronage.

The Victorian Government is currently undertaking its own feasibility study of a rail line to Doncaster at a reported cost of $6 million. In my view, the six municipalities commissioned their study with the primary intent of putting political pressure on the Government to commit to the rail line.

Their prime interest isn’t in an objective assessment of the appropriateness of a rail line. So far as they’re concerned, the more attractive it looks – especially in terms of cost – the more pressure it puts on the Government.

It’s probably unrealistic to expect The Age to make a critical judgement prior to publication about the credibility of the material it reports, particularly on a technical topic like this. It could no doubt claim it’s just reporting what the experts say is true.

Be that as it may, I would nevertheless expect The Age to very speedily publish any contrary opinions from credible sources, especially if they cast serious doubt on the substance of the original “facts”. In this case, The Age received within a day of publishing the initial report not one dissenting letter from a highly credible source, but letters from two such sources.

One came from Tim Gosbell, the Leader of the Government’s Doncaster Rail Study. The other came from Andrew Wisdom of Arup, the engineering firm that’s a member of Professor Newman’s study team.

To its credit, The Age did publish a story the next day reporting comments by Tim Gosbell that the estimates were too cheap. However the report was much smaller and considerably less prominent than the original (although you can’t tell that from the on-line story). Importantly, it only covered the smaller part of Tim Gosbell’s arguments and gave no coverage to Andrew Wisdom’s comments which, because the firm is part of Prof Newman’s team, are particularly telling. (Note: this para was added on 30 July at 4.30 pm in response to this comment).

I find it extraordinary that The Age has not published either of these letters. Yet on Friday it found room to publish this unsubstantiated endorsement of the proposed rail line from a reader (Lorraine Bates of Surrey Hills):

Why is the government wasting more than $6 million of taxpayers’ money lining the pockets of consultants reinventing the wheel? We know what needs to be done – people have reportedly been requesting a rail line to Doncaster since the 1880s. Just do it.

Tim Gosbell’s view is at odds with the claims of Professor Newman’s report. Here is the nub of what he says in his letter (full text here):

To suggest that any Doncaster rail line option could be built for only $840M is overlooking the complexities of building a new railway line to Doncaster. One of our options follows the Eastern Freeway, but needs major tunnelling infrastructure to provide a connection to Doncaster Hill at its terminus, and major works to connect either near Victoria Park station or more tunnelling to connect to Parkville. More than half of this alignment is outside of the freeway median, requiring much more complex engineering.

Furthermore, it is completely inappropriate to compare a Doncaster rail line with a project in Mandurah built nearly 10 years ago, in a different construction environment, using different rolling stock and to different rail standards…..

To claim that a rail connection to a catchment the size of Doncaster would carry 100,000 people a day is simply misleading….

The letter from Arup’s Andrew Wisdom is understandably more oblique, but there’s no mistaking the distance he wants to put between his firm and the claims reported in The Age (full text here):

Arup was not involved in providing any advice on cost estimates, engineering or constructability for the Doncaster Rail project.

There can surely be no question that these letters are pertinent, credible and should’ve been published. The whole affair smacks of The Age taking a position that’s so partisan it won’t give contrary views a full airing.

Some have characterised The Age as having a “leftish” or “progressive” bias but I think that’s inaccurate. Even if the editors think that’s what they’re doing, a Doncaster rail line would be inequitable and do virtually nothing for sustainability.

If the billions of dollars required for Doncaster rail were applied to alternative public transport projects, they would give a much better outcome in terms of the traditional progressive agenda. If The Age really were a progressive paper it would be cautioning against projects like Doncaster.