Yesterday’s Energy and Climate Change Committee report on consumer engagement with energy markets made for interesting reading. From a PR perspective the section on media reporting on energy costs was particularly compelling. The rising cost of energy and impact of ‘green’ policy has been one of the hot topics of 2012 – capturing the attention of the trades, broadsheets and the tabloids alike. And for a sector that’s traditionally not the topic of pub chat, this is the year that the country got talking. With squeezed wallets and fluctuating weather conditions, combined with the challenge of global warming and carbon reduction, the public is taking notice.
Depending on your newspaper of choice you will likely read very different views on how serious our energy challenge is – both in terms of dwindling resources, and environmentally sustainable sources. Yesterday’s report states that “It is likely that consumers get a lot of their information about energy issues from the media.” So with increased, and often emotive, attention now focused on energy it becomes even more important to know where our media stand on the issues, and crucially – how accurate their reporting is.
The Energy and Climate Change Committee is troubled by concerns raised over media reporting on energy matters. The report points to several witnesses who have suggested that media reporting of the cost to consumers of DECC’s environmental and social policies may be misleading. The Carbon Brief says that a series of newspaper articles have overstated the current impact of green policies on energy bills, either through error or selective research. Scottish Renewables suggested that the media preferred to rely on figures that fitted with their editorial line on energy and climate issues – relying on “unverifiable leaked reports or skewed research by think-tanks and individual consultants”. RWE npower said of media reporting, “Very often, it is a case of ‘not letting the facts get in the way of a good story’”.
The Committee wrote to the print media requesting responses to the evidence it has received on media reporting of these issues. Whilst only 6 of the 17 publications replied, the answers are telling. The Sunday Times decided its coverage has been “very balanced”, focused on the science, while The Financial Times put responsibility with the reporter. The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph responded that the costs of green energy were “hotly disputed” but that they reported “all sides of the debate”. The Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday acknowledged that “mistakes are occasionally made” – hmm…
One national newspaper responded that they were “uneasy that a Committee of the House of Commons appears to be asking a newspaper to justify its reporting on a particular issue based on vague, partisan criticisms from lobby groups with an interest in the issue”. That same paper failed to print a letter from the Committee’s Chair highlighting factual inaccuracies about an article on the effect that investment in renewables would have on consumers’ bills. No coincidence then that such disdain comes from the paper with perhaps the most supportive line on fossil fuels, with anti-rhetoric towards wind energy? I’ll leave it you to work out the paper in question…
Of course, in the fast paced world of journalism mistakes from time-to-time are inevitable. But the Government must do everything in its power to make facts and figures on the cost of going green transparent. It is all too easy for the media to hide behind confusing and conflicting data so they may follow an editorial line that misguides an already bewildered public. Renewable technologies and environmentally sustainable practices are a necessity not a choice for our long-term energy future. Isn’t it better that now the public’s attention is caught they get a full, accurate and honest picture?