Here’s a startling headline from The Sunday Age yesterday: “Melbourne Airport rail link reconsidered during secret tourism talks“. There’s the whiff of bad behaviour in that headline, maybe even scandal. According to Fairfax’s august journal:

“A high-powered group of advisers set up by the Andrews government secretly reconsidered a rail link to Melbourne Airport as one of several ‘strategic investments’ to boost Victoria’s tourism prospects.

“Almost two years after the idea of train connection between Tullamarine and the CBD was shelved when Labor came to office, a cabinet-in-confidence document reveals it was briefly put back on the table as part of deliberations by a reference group chaired by infrastructure tsar Sir Rod Eddington.”

The Age is an enthusiastic promoter of a rail line from Melbourne’s CBD to the airport. The former Napthine government took the idea to the 2014 election but lost. The Andrews government has shown no enthusiasm for the idea to date, at least not in public; it says its focus is on other priorities like Melbourne Metro, Mernda rail extension, level crossing removals, and upgraded signalling.

But the news that a rail link was “secretly reconsidered” sounds super important. “Secret tourism talks”? “A cabinet-in-confidence document”? “A high-powered group of advisers”? Is there some intrigue here? Is something fishy going on?

Nah, not really. What The Sunday Age has got its hands on is just a report from a committee of industry players set up to advise the government on the development of its Victorian Visitor Economy Strategy. According to the newspaper:

“The document’s findings are among many discussed by the 12-member reference group, which also included Geelong Football chief executive Brian Cook, Melbourne Fashion Festival chair Laura Anderson, Asia Cup boss Michael Brown and TV presenter Catriona Rowntree.”

State governments have hundreds of advisory committees providing advice to ministers across the various portfolios. They suggest ideas to ministers and vet draft proposals, but that’s the limit of their power. Their views might be reported to cabinet as background when ministers bring proposals forward, but the committees are strictly advisory.

The 32-page Victorian Visitor Economy Strategy was published last July. Here’s the sum total of acknowledgement it gives the reference committee:

“[The strategy] is based on consultation and research undertaken as part of the Victorian Visitor Economy Review, including approximately 60 submissions, 55 individual consultations and the input of an external reference group.”

There’s nothing newsworthy here; the reference group is just one part of the wider consultation landscape. It’s neither surprising nor consequential that an industry reference group would propose an airport rail line in its wish list. Why wouldn’t it? After all, it expects the government will pay for it, not tourism operators.

The Sunday Age doesn’t give its readers access to the reference group’s report, but the newspaper’s coverage suggests it’s not an analytical document. I especially like the way it assesses tourist accommodation at Wilsons Promontory and on the Great Ocean Road as “below par”.

 The silliness of the newspaper’s story is that Infrastructure Victoria also “reconsidered” the idea of an airport rail link in its draft report. It’s a public report (released in May 2016) and an analytical assessment too. It even provides a whole-of-life estimate of the cost: between $1 billion and $5 billion, although likely to be “towards the top of the stated cost range”.

This is another case of Fairfax seeking to manufacture controversy from nothing, driven by the commercial pressure to appeal to the prejudices of its readers. I get that Fairfax might have to resort to clickbait to survive, but it shouldn’t sacrifice responsible journalism in the “serious” part of the paper.

It’s an unfortunate way to allocate 680 words to spinning the issue because an airport rail line would be a huge investment; it warrants being treated seriously. It would require a lot of public funding that wouldn’t be available for other worthy purposes.

I’ve discussed the substantive issue of whether or not a rail line is warranted before.

*This article was originally published at Crikey blog The Urbanist