Useless Pack of Bankers

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As any decent PR hack will tell you, if you want to get your brand all over the media without too much effort, just release a report on a touchy subject that says exactly what you want it to say.

The media loves them. It’s news writing itself. They provide instant copy, they have the illusion of independence, and they are always an easy sell to busy assignment editors. Put out a new study or discussion paper, a glossy pamphlet or two — or better still, an opinion poll or survey — and the media will reward you with generous, generally uncritical coverage of whatever you are smart enough to write in the first three paragraphs of your Executive Summary.

As Bernard Keene pointed out on Friday, that’s certainly been the strategy of the Business Council of Australia. Its most recent report on carbon trading, written by Port Jackson Partners and released on Thursday, rattles off some gloomy predictions for the future of energy generators and other carbon-intensive corporations. The reliably pliant Australian screamed that the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme is a "company killer" and even the Fairfax press took up a similar theme.

There is a massive hypocrisy here among journalist-commentators like The Australian‘s Lenore Taylor who last week labelled the recommendations of the Bracks Report into the car industry "expedient" while this week enthusiastically covering the BCA’s desperate pleading for corporate welfare. But we expect that sort of thing from the newspaper many bloggers have taken to calling The Opposition Organ. newmatilda.com has covered the craven bleating of the business lobby over carbon emissions trading in previous articles, so we won’t bore you with more of their greed-masquerading-as-concern.

The avalanche of PR disguised as research never seems to stop. This week, BankWest released the latest edition of its so-called "Quality of Life Index", which got it a massive free kick from a range of media outlets. Even the ABC had no problem covering the report, making sure they included the corporate sponsors’ brand when referring to the "BankWest Quality of Life Index" on ABC TV news, before going on to give BankWest executive Ian Corfield some free media on the national broadcaster. A Google News search on this topic yielded 167 mentions — not bad going for a report that has some serious methodological flaws.

I wanted to concentrate on the BankWest study because it shows just how easily busy journalists and credulous media outlets can be taken in by what appears to be rigorous research. The media reported the findings of the report with little analysis of what it actually said, and no examination of the dubious reasoning behind its impressive league tables of best and worst local government areas in the nation. "The BankWest Quality of Life Index has debunked the myth of Australians’ ‘sea-change’ and ‘tree-change’ desires," is how the ABC story led.

No, it hasn’t. The Quality of Life Index is not a survey of Australians’ desires. It contains absolutely no market research, survey polling or indeed any investigation of where Australians would like to live. Instead, it is a league table of local government areas based on a fairly rudimentary formula that compiles and combines 10 different statistics from published sources like the ABS.

Pause for just a moment to look at these statistics and you’ll immediately notice some very surprising assumptions built into them. Take the housing category, for instance. One of the 10 indicators for "quality of life" is the percentage of detached houses in a particular municipal area. Houses = good, apartments = bad. Even the shabbiest shack without water or electricity apparently conveys a much better quality of life than a sumptuous Gold Coast apartment. (This, incidentally, is probably the reason the Sydney and Melbourne CBDs score near the bottom of the 590 Australian municipalities in the Index: unsurprisingly, they have almost no detached houses.)

A second category used to calculate the formula is housing vacancies, or "empty homes" as the BankWest authors, with their fingers on our heartstrings, so charmlessly describe them. Municipalities with low rates of "empty homes" are ranked higher than local government areas with high rates. Of course, not many people want to live in a ghost town. But it’s not clear why extremely low rates of housing vacancies are a good thing — just ask the residents of Port Headland, as Four Corners‘ Matthew Carney did the other night.

Or take home ownership. Again, the equation is a breathtakingly simplistic assumption that more home owner-occupation equals better quality of life. This might well be true, but it only applies to the quality of life of those homeowners, and not to that of any neighbours of theirs who are renting. In that case, a suburb that has 100 per cent owner-occupation means you’re going to be looking for a caravan or a tent somewhere. Indeed, that’s exactly what’s happening in Western Australia’s mining boom towns.

There are holes in the methodology of the BankWest Index you could drive an 18-wheeler through. All categories are ranked equally, as though the availability of broadband internet is just as important to quality of life as the crime rate. The crime figures themselves are selective: measuring only property-related crime, as though violence against persons has no impact on quality of life. I would have thought the murder rate is a rather important factor in a suburb’s quality of life, since it measures the likelihood that you or I might be deprived of life altogether.

This PR exercise also manages to completely ignore the rich literature on the economics of happiness. This is a shame, because if the authors had bothered to look at some of it, they might have concluded that higher incomes do not necessarily increase a person’s quality of life. And as we have argued recently at newmatilda.com, endlessly increasing house prices are definitely not good for everyone’s quality of life. Indeed, if the Australian real estate bubble does burst or rapidly deflate sometime in the future — like it has in the US, UK, Spain and New Zealand — then rising house prices will have led to many of the things this index claims are bad for our quality of life: housing vacancies, falling house prices, rising unemployment and possibly rising crime too.

That hasn’t stopped newspapers indulging in an orgy of self-critical coverage over the league-table rankings. "Melbourne’s best, but CBD gets thumbs down," wrote Leo Shanahan in The Age, while The Courier-Mail wailed that "the myth that Queenslanders have the best quality of life has been challenged".

No, it hasn’t. Queenslanders may or may not have the best quality of life, but this report has challenged little except the credibility of editors and journalists. The real myth here is that a snazzy brochure cooked up by a bank intent on selling mortgages can tell us anything sensible about our "quality of life".

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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