This is the level crossing in Brighton which The Age says is jumping the queue while a death trap in St Albans is ignored

In the sorts of transport and planning articles I take a particular interest in, I’m seeing more examples of  “bait selling” in the Fairfax media. The “bait” is a headline and lede that declare controversy and outrage, but as one reads on it becomes clear there’s really not much going on – it’s a beat-up.

Consider this story in The Age today, under the headline Brighton jumps queue as death trap waits.

MONEY is tight in Victoria for TAFEs, teachers and hospitals, but the state government has found millions of dollars to upgrade a level crossing in the safe Liberal seat of Brighton.

The New Street crossing – ranked a lowly 223rd on a government priority list of level crossings in need of fixing – is to be upgraded this year. The crossing is in the seat of deputy Liberal leader Louise Asher.

News of the upgrade comes in the same week Dianne Dejanovic visited the notorious Main Street level crossing in St Albans.

Ms Dejanovic’s 31-year-old son Christian was killed at the level crossing a year ago – the 16th person to die at the crossing – and she has called on the government to fix it.

The crossing is on the priority list and the government has said work will begin this term but it has not allocated any money.

Public Transport Victoria said the Brighton crossing had been closed since 2007 because of safety concerns about its manually operated gates.

“There had not been any fatalities recorded at the New Street Level crossing, however in the three years prior to closing there were 17 near misses, some potentially fatal, including a train colliding with the gates,” it said.

So just to be clear about this, The Age says the Baillieu Government wants to prioritise upgrading what’s a comparatively low risk for Brighton silver-tails, ahead of fixing what is literally a life-and-death concern for residents of working class St Albans.

On the face of it, that’s a very serious worry. There are 170 level crossings in Melbourne and the average cost of elimination (i.e. to grade-separate rail from road) is around $100 million per crossing. The more difficult ones can be up to $200 million.

He’s doubtless playing politics, but Federal Transport Minister Anthony Albanese described the St Alban’s crossing this week as “one of the worst in the country”. He implied he might come to the party with some funding.

But the reader who’s prepared to stick with the story eventually stumbles on these two paras:

A spokeswoman for the government said “separating a road from a railway line by going over or under costs around $150 million to $200 million, and St Albans is on the Coalition’s list” of 12 priority crossings.

“New Street level crossing is a completely different type of project – to install boom gates that were closed in 2007 – and is likely to be less than $5 million,” the spokeswoman said.

So unless the spokeswoman is telling a bald-face lie, the Baillieu Government wants to spend $5 million in Brighton to install boom gates so the crossing can be re-opened. It’s not proposing to spend tens of millions on grade-separation as is necessary in St Albans.

Now it’s certainly arguable whether this is the best way to spend $5 million, especially in a tight financial environment.

But it’s not even remotely close to the implication The Age fosters. There’s no valid comparison here – a $5 million upgrade in Brighton isn’t going to determine whether the Government does or doesn’t spend $100 -$150 million for a complete grade separation in St Albans.

I’m seeing increasing examples of this kind of “bait selling” in The Age. For two other examples, see my articles on Is high-rise CBD living bad for our cities? and Who got the facts on traffic forecasts wrong?

The formula is to knowingly construct a story with a distorted and controversial angle that’s intentionally misleading.

It’s done knowingly because “the facts”, which contradict or seriously weaken the way the story’s framed, are inserted later in the text. Then the paper can (and does) say it was fair reporting because it presented both sides of the story.

For the record, St Albans really is one of the worst crossings and needs to be attended to fast.

On a different matter, I’m wondering if the switch to the compact format might usher in a new tone in Fairfax editorials too. I don’t think I’ve seen anything before in The Age that’s quite as bolshie as this editorial today, Why don’t our school children have seat belts in buses? Here’s an extract:

So, what is happening in Victoria? Nothing. Mr Mulder, have a good look at Coroner Spooner’s report and see why seatbelts in buses matter. Listen to the parents whose children have been injured in bus crashes. Rise above the Dr Nos in the industry and your own government who reject every program because it will cost money.