Climate news for business, not by business

The agenda-setting process illustrated by the recent carbon pricing stories in The Australian must, as far as possible, be divorced from outside commercial and political interests. And we will work hard to do that.

In the newsroom it's called 'burying the lede' (lede being the archaic spelling used by journalists to denote what 'leads' the story) – and I'll ask readers today to make up their own minds what the lede should have been in the 'carbon pricing' stories below.

Both are written by one of the nation's top parliamentary reporters (Sid Maher). And both have been published by The Australian – now a stablemate of Business Spectator following the announcement yesterday of News Ltd's buyout of Australian Independent Business Media.

However the two articles, to my mind, tell very different stories about climate minister Greg Combet's carbon pricing comments yesterday.

The first story, prominently displayed – at least on the version of The Australian I read on my smartphone – was headlined "Carbon price key to Asian relations". (Clicking through to the full version of the story, the headline becomes: "Carbon price key to Asian relations, climate change minister Greg Combet has said").

That caught my eye as it's a story I wrote as commentary (not 'news') well over a year ago, following interviews with former Deputy Director-General of the World Trade Organisation, Andrew Stoler (The protectionism Labor won't mention, April 13, 2011).

As I explained in an article prior to that: "Australia's carbon reduction scheme should be aimed at reducing carbon emissions within our own borders, in the knowledge that failing to do so leaves us unacceptably exposed to future trade sanctions from, in particular, China, the EU and the US" (Labor's return to protectionism, March 23, 2011).

In Maher's first article, published online at 8.40pm yesterday, the lede foregrounds the same point: "Greg Combet has warned Australia's trade relations with Asia could be damaged if it does not proceed with pricing carbon."

Much further down (paragraph 11), in what newspaper sub-editors sometimes call 'cuttable background', Maher writes: "Mr Combet likened the carbon tax reforms to Mabo and the Keating government’s Native Title Act."

A few hours later, when the print edition of The Australian was put to bed, the lede and cuttable background had been reversed – I should point out that I have no knowledge as to whether a senior sub-editor, editor or even Maher himself made that change. And as I said at the start of this piece, readers will make up their own minds about which lede is more appropriate.

The new version, under the headline "Combet equates selling carbon tax to Howard's dock reforms", paints a picture more of Labor hubris than of any trade threat – and is published at the bottom of page two of today's print edition of The Australian.

The lede reads: "Greg Combet has likened the difficulty of selling the carbon tax to the union campaign to those of the Howard government's waterfront reforms in the mid-1990s as he vowed to win public support for the policy and declared it would be business as usual for most companies after the carbon tax began on July 1."

Further down the article (in the ninth paragraph), we find: "He warned that Australia's trading partners were expecting action to cut greenhouse gas emissions."

Why am I delving into these stories so forensically this morning? The answer, as a number of commentators have already said, is that has been a week of 'tectonic' change in the Australian media landscape.

Fairfax is axing 1900 jobs and Gina Rinehart is pushing for much greater influence on the Fairfax Board.

News Ltd has announced a major restructure that includes consolidating newsrooms, large scale redundancies (though "less than 1900" is all we know at this point), a $2 billion bid for Consolidated Media (and, therefore, greater control of Foxtel) and, of course, the buyout of the website my colleagues and I have worked so hard to establish, Business Spectator.

Amongst all these shifts, I simply wish to raise the question as to where, when all the balls in the air have landed, the agenda for contemporary political debate in Australia will be set.

The Australian newspaper currently has an agenda-setting power wildly disproportionate to its online and offline readership. There's nothing unusual about that – it belongs to a class of media product known to media sociologists as the 'restricted field of cultural production'.

That's just a posh way of saying 'smart, powerful people read it', and acknowledging that producing and consuming that product involve 'symbolic' economies as much as financial ones. That's why people like Stephen Conroy rail against The Australian more than the Daily Telegraph or the Herald Sun – it's 'The Oz' that sets agendas more than any other publication.

At Business Spectator, we have long been grateful for the contributions of our readers – and a quick read through their comments at the end of most articles shows we also have an audience of 'smart, powerful people'. That's one reason News Ltd chief executive Kim Williams wanted to buy and grow our business.

Yesterday, however, I received several emails and phone calls from concerned readers and contributors who wanted to know what was going to happen to our own 'agenda setting' independence.

The early signs are good. At an all-staff meeting lead by editor-in-chief Alan Kohler yesterday, journos and commercial staff alike were told that our fierce independence of commercial interests would continue. We are 'for' business, not 'directed' by business.

And let me add my own guarantee.

The agenda-setting process illustrated by the carbon pricing stories above must, as far as possible, be divorced from outside commercial and political interests.

In the newsroom, commentators and news editors (who by their selection and presentation of stories run a kind of commentary of their own) must honestly and independently present the world as they see it. Not as the Labor Party sees it, nor the Liberals, the Nationals, Greens or Independents see it. Not as BHP or Gina Rinehart sees it. Not as one's urbane friends see it, nor as disadvantaged battlers see it. The best editorial mix represents all those views, and more.

My guarantee, then, is to do my best to live up to that ideal. I'll often be wrong, but not because somebody else told me to be so – for that is the fear expressed to me, rightly or wrongly, via email and phone yesterday.

Having had the honour to work alongside some of the nation's best journalists for the past five years, I'm pretty sure each and every one of them would join me in making that guarantee.


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