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Public transport

Feb 11, 2016

Surely the media can do better than this?

The relentlessly negative way the mainstream media presented the Andrews Governmen's planned 'sky train' highlights the immense power it has to shape the way policy is made

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Video of Caulfield to Dandenong level crossing removal project
Official video of Caulfield to Dandenong level crossing removal project

Although it wasn’t the only one, Melbourne’s putative paper of record, The Age, emphasised in its news reporting this week how those living close to the Victorian Government’s planned elevated rail line feel the $1.6 billion project will make them worse off:

Look at the first report The Age published on this issue on the weekend, $1.6 billion elevated rail project to replace level crossings on Dandenong line. It’s a long story, 1,321 words excluding captions.

The headline’s neutral, but you have to read through 813 words and eight images before you come to the first positive words about the project – as a point of comparison, the article you’re now reading is 744 words in total!

There are 293 words quoted directly from four critics including the Leader of the Opposition, compared to just 34 from two supporters, the Premier and an academic.

Of course the media has a responsibility to give exposure to dissenting views. But as we know from the debate around climate change, not all views warrant equal weighting.

So-called denialists demand equal exposure on television or in print irrespective of the level of support they attract in the community, the quality of the evidence they rely on to support their claims, or their underlying motivation.

In this instance, The Age gave one critic a platform to complain that elevating the rail line presented a risk of derailed trains falling on properties and of paedophiles in passing trains preying upon her children while they swam in the backyard pool.

That’s patent rubbish and should never have made it into print. Neverthless, residents have legitimate concerns; the prospect of a nine metre viaduct along the back fence is understandably distressing.

But if the claims by the Government are true, this project will benefit many more people than it afflicts. The key benefits are a significant cost-saving over the most likely alternative (trenching) and the “creation” of 22.5 hectares of land that can be used for other purposes like parkland. See my initial assessment, Is the future of this train line up in the air?

The Age seems to suggest in this editorial that saving money is a questionable objective; that the Government’s real agenda in elevating the rail line is to save money rather than pay the extra it costs to build below ground level.

Where did the idea that it’s somehow unbecoming for governments to be careful and prudent with public funds come from? Since when did the ridiculously high cost of building infrastructure (e.g. $11 Billion for 9km Melbourne Metro) become a matter of little concern?

If elevating the line yields a modest saving (say $100 million), then that’s a lot of extra money that could be used in other ways e.g. for schools, health facilities, prisons, art galleries, solar energy generators, buses, trams, trains.

And that 22.5 hectares of “created” land is very valuable, even used as parkland. It would otherwise cost a large sum and take a long time to acquire land on this scale in this location.

If the way The Age frames this issue results in the Government backing off and putting the line below ground level, nearby residents will no doubt feel they’re better off, but those wider benefits will be foregone.

The bigger issue here is the power of media to influence government. It can’t simply ignore the impact on public policy of the way it frames an issue or what it chooses to campaign on.

The Fourth Estate has an important role that comes with an obligation to be conscious of the inevitable impact of its actions. That role is supposed to make us collectively better off, not privilege the concerns of the few.

The narrow way The Age has framed this matter in its news reporting lowers the quality of debate in Melbourne around important public issues. (1)

It should start applying the lofty rhetoric of the Walkleys to the way it conducts the other 95% of its activities i.e. routine news reporting (2).

__________

  1. It’s done better in its commentary and editorial (but who reads editorials?).
  2. Although it’s time the Walkleys were revamped – see Do the Walkleys promote hard-nosed policy debate?

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