As if to confirm that it long ago ceased to be a paper of record, the Maily Telegraph has today recycled an article on comparative energy costs with a spin designed to frighten readers into believing that the Coalition’s policies will cost everyone £4,600 a year – and that it’s official. But it also reveals the art of using headlines and sub-headings to cause readers to make their minds up before reading the rest.
The piece, under the by-line of Rowena Mason and David Millward, bears the unequivocal sub-heading “The Coalition’s plans to convert Britain to green energy would cost the country the equivalent of £4,600 per person a year, according to official forecasts”. That sounds damning and conclusive in equal measure. But the original in the Guardian, from which it was lifted, sounds subtly different.
There, the sub-heading reads “Prediction using unique calculator challenges view that sustainable energy means higher costs”. Both articles agree on the cost of green energy – in the region of £4,600 to £5,000 a year – but by selective emphasis, the Telegraph sets the information to fit its agenda. The facts, as ever, are both more interesting and complex.
Indeed, in the first paragraph of the Guardian original, readers are told “But the cost of developing clean and sustainable energy ... will be very similar to replacing today’s ageing and polluting power stations, the analysis finds”. The Telegraph piece splits that off into a second paragraph, thereby distancing it yet further from the firm and unequivocal headline.
And it is not until well down the Telegraph article that readers are told that David MacKay has devised what he has called The 2050 Pathways Calculator to, as he puts it, “take the poison out of the debate”. The calculator enables anyone to “play at being Secretary of State”, and shows comparative costs between scenarios ranging from “do nothing” to the option favoured by the Coalition.
Moreover, although MacKay has given the public the means to compare costs between different approaches to energy supply, the march of technology cannot be reliably factored in, as Dieter Helm has pointed out, with the potential not only for gas to become cheap and abundant, but for advances in renewable energy to make that also much less expensive.
This detail, though, is omitted from the Telegraph article, reinforcing the thought that the paper has churned over the Guardian original merely to frighten the readers, rather than spark an informed debate about the future direction of energy policy.
That much is predictable – and it’s not good enough.