Wednesday 9 December 2009

The big green bogeyman

Why must the media undermine sensible carrot and stick eco-initiatives by turning them into inaccurate scare stories?

We always hear from newspapers that while people understand the environmental challenge, they are unwilling to stomach the solutions. The trouble is, we only ever hear about the solutions from the media, and for whatever reason, they are almost always caricatured beyond recognition. If there's no appetite for green, it's not surprising.

I remember opening a tabloid one day to find a photograph of myself next to the image of a giant pink vibrator and under the headline "Goldsmith wants to ban dildos" (because sex toys are apparently energy inefficient). No less than the paper's political editor demanded that my ideas be "dropped like a stone". Of course he knew I'd never said anything of the sort. I believe the story was prompted by a news release calling for greater standards to be imposed on electrical appliances.

Other newspapers are less direct, but no less tricky when it comes to green policy. A couple of years ago, a broadsheet was given an exclusive look at a green car policy being proposed by the Conservative party's Quality of Life review, which I was part of.

We were calling for measures to make new clean cars more affordable, and recommended a tax on new polluting cars to pay for it. The idea was that people would still have a choice, they wouldn't be punished for a decision they'd already made, it wouldn't represent a stealth tax, and we would have a cleaner car fleet within a matter of a few years. This idea already works well in Denmark, and is a no-brainer if we want to cut emissions and oil dependence.

A senior writer prepared an article in which he properly described the idea. He explained that the cost of polluting cars would go up, and the cost of clean cars would go down. He gave the idea a big thumbs-up.

But by the time it was published in that paper, all reference to clean cars becoming cheaper, and indeed all reference to this being imposed only on new cars, was removed. With common sense stripped from the idea, the paper was able to trash it, and it did. The journalist was rightly furious, and later cited this as his reason for resigning from that newspaper shortly after.

Green policy is about triggering a shift to a cleaner way of doing things. To be effective, it needs to incentivise the right behaviour, for example through tax breaks, and that needs to be paid for by disincentives on polluting behaviour. It should never be retrospective, it should be revenue neutral for governments, and it needs to be totally transparent.

There will be winners, just as there will be losers. Clever companies will spot the trend and deliver clean products that can last. Others will be left behind.

It's a basic good cop/bad cop approach, and it's not complicated. When opinion surveys have been conducted on specific green policy ideas, they are almost always met with overwhelming approval. But never when newspapers focus exclusively on the "bad cop".

This is a major problem. If you tell people, "that old banger of yours, we're going to tax the hell out of it," they'll rightly tell you to get lost. But if you tell people that when they next buy a car, the tax will be adjusted so that the cleanest ones will cost less and the polluting ones will cost more, most people would say "fair enough". Cars would cost less to run, we'd be less oil-dependent, and we'd see a cut in our emissions.

It is true that many of our newspapers now devote pages to the environment. Pictures of icebergs and Inuit appear virtually every week. That represents an improvement. But when it comes to actual policy, the thing that might help move us in the right direction, it is almost always portrayed in such a way that it can only be rejected by readers.

Only this week for instance, the Sunday Times has me calling for "a great big new tax" on polluting cars. The quote is 50% true, but the missing 50% (a great big tax cut on the cleanest cars) is absolutely key. Indeed its omission from the quote is an obvious deal-breaker. So why leave it out? I had a detailed conversation with the Sunday Times on this very issue.

Politicians usually get the blame for dragging their feet on environmental issues. And fair enough. Most of them do just that. But the blame isn't theirs alone. For politicians afraid of losing votes, a bristling media waiting to transform good green ideas into monsters is a colossal disincentive.

Article first published in The Guardian, 7th December 2009 :