SubScribe: Running on empty Google+

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Running on empty

Man bites dog. What somebody somewhere wants to suppress. Anything that makes a reader say 'Gee whizz!' 
We all recognise these definitions of what is news. 
Well, how about adding to the list  'Something the reader already knows and which is beyond their power to change'?
No one who travels by car, whether as driver or passenger, can have failed to notice how the big numbers outside petrol stations are getting bigger almost daily and that the dials on the pumps go round faster every time you fill up.  
Yesterday the AA announced that the average price of a litre of unleaded had reached a record of 140.2p. That's £6.37 per gallon. This information was passed to most newspaper readers this morning. Some used it as a filler, some as an inside top or page lead. The Telegraph splashed it under this  banner

£100 to fill a family car

And that, pretty much, is the beginning and end of the story. We've hit a rather spurious landmark with the £1.40 and with a bit of engineering can approach the £100  tank. It's actually £98 for the cited Mondeo (£103 for a diesel car, but this story is about unleaded; diesel's been over £1.40 for ages). Petrol has been going up for a while, breaking records on the way, so what's so special about this milestone? 
Ah yes, of course, it's Budget week and that nasty Mr Osborne decided not only to start taxing granny at the same level as everyone else, but also declined to waive the 3.02p fuel duty increase lined up for August.   
This increase will, according to the AA's Paul Watters, add a further £3.80 to the cost of filling a tank.Have I  missed something here? That Mondeo tank took 70 litres. By my reckoning the extra duty will lift the cost by £2.11. But suggesting that subs should check simple arithmetic is a side issue.
Mr Watters and Brian Madderson, who represents people who run petrol stations, both predict that petrol will cost £1.50 a litre by the summer. This, they say, is partly as a result of that duty increase  (Mr Madderson says it's 4p  a litre - but that would still add only £2.80 to that Mondeo tank) and partly because of the increasing price of oil, which they attribute to worries about Syria and Iran .
Now if you've broken down at 3am on a rainy country lane, the yellow AA van is a welcome sight. The organisation styles itself the fourth emergency service. It is the motorist's friend. But it is also a lobby group. It doesn't release data about average fuel prices simply to inform us; we can find out all we need to know for ourselves. It does so to put pressure on the Government. 
Rising fuel prices affect us all, whether or not we drive, since most of what we buy spends at least part of its journey in lorries that gobble up diesel. So the issue is certainly  important. But do a few contrived sums, a manufactured landmark and  the predictable opinions of a couple of blokes with vested interests constitute the most important story of the day?
OK, Saturdays are different. It's the day we all troll off to Sainsbury's to feed our families and our cars, picking up the  paper as we make our way to the till, muttering about the pain inflicted on our bank balances by the shop and the forecourt.
The AA is not daft. It always releases its fuel price figures on a Friday  to catch that market. It knows that Fridays are often slow news days. I have to confess to having pounced on  the AA numbers in desperation when searching for a business news splash, justifying the decision with the rationale that Saturday papers have a different, softer, feel. 
But we can still cover softer stories with rigour and vigour. For a start we could explain why petrol prices are so high when oil is not as expensive as it was in 2008. Then it was approaching $150 per barrel; today it is around $125.   But in those days the pound was worth nearly two dollars; today it trades at  about $1.58. That's why we have to pay more.
If we want to create a splash we could also look at the impact of rising fuel prices on various aspects of the economy, on prices across the board, the effects on all businesses, not simply the road haulage companies who are always ready to pitch in their twopenn'th.
Or we could look at the reasoning behind the extra fuel duty - what used to be called, with some irony,  the accelerator - and the environmental case for stopping people driving so much. We could even examine the national infrastructure, the state of public transport -  particularly the railways with their indifferent service, inadequate rolling stock and rocketing fares. Put those right and we might be more willing to forsake the car.
Or maybe, when we hit that £1.50 milestone, we could have a jolly inside page/spread on previous landmark price rises with great vintage pix and 'that was the year that was' stuff to remind us what we, our parents and our grandparents were doing when petrol cost five shillings a gallon, 50p a gallon, 50p per litre, £1 per litre etc. 
But let's not pretend that it's news. 
And if we're still in any doubt, let's keep the AA in the front of our minds as we go back to that Northcliffe adage: "News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress. Everything else is just advertising."

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