Richard North, 18/02/2019  

I would readily acknowledge that the relationship between Flybmi's demise and the EU's ETS is complex, and not easy to understand. And without the company's financial information (which has not been released), it would not be possible to determine the extent of its contribution to an event that is obviously a multi-factorial.

How fortunate we are, therefore, that we have the services of Tom Rees, a real journalist in the Telegraph to guide us through the labyrinth and give us the information we need to follow such complex issues.

Obligingly, Mr Rees has written a piece entitled, "What went wrong at Flybmi - and why it won't be last airline to crash land", one where we could reasonably expect to learn something more of the impact of the Commission's decision to suspend the participation of UK airlines in the ETS.

It will come as no surprise, however, to find that that the only thing we have to sustain us is the irony. Of detailed analysis there is none. All that Mr Rees can offer are the observations:
Although Brexit is not the cause of airlines' woes, the industry has been among the loudest critics of the intensifying uncertainty. Flybmi said that the turmoil in Westminster had hampered its ability to "secure valuable flying contracts in Europe" and led to a spike in fuel and carbon costs after the EU decided to exclude UK airlines from full participation in the Emissions Trading Scheme.
In other words, his only reference to the ETS was a copy-out of the Flybmi press release, with no elaboration. The only defence the Telegraph might offer is that, of the hundreds of media articles on this event (and the number does run to hundreds), not one of the many that I have read in any way explains what is happening. The entire press corps seems to have gone AWOL.

If it wasn't for the fact that I find the emissions trading system so immensely tedious, I suppose I would have picked up something of this from the Commission's Notice to Stakeholders published on 19 December 2018 and the UK government's technical notice, which has a publication date a couple of months earlier – although it refers to the Commission's December notice.

Most of the information needed to explain the situation is in the UK government's notice, although it is best to read both publications. Grazing the Commission's annual report helps fill in the background. Neither this nor the notices, however, put the situation in context, nor give any clues as to the potential impact on the aviation industry.

One need not single out this issue, though, to remark on the media's failure to explore this issue. The coverage generally of the notices has been poor, so the climate change and emission trading system is just another of those issues which dropped through the net.

The nearest we seem to have got to a popular media report was in Euractiv, the superficiality of which tells its own story. There was no clue given as to the potential impact of what had been done.

While the complexity of the subject possibly explains why there has been so little coverage, one nevertheless might have expected the specialist publications to have taken up the challenge of explaining the implications. That may have been the case, although if there is a detailed analysis anywhere, I've not been able to find it.

On the face of it, therefore, we seem to have a perfect illustration of the inability of the media – popular and specialist – to evaluate the implications of Brexit in a particular area of economic activity. But, unless there is something substantial that I have missed (and that is quite possible), this failure extends to a wide domain of think-tanks, parliamentary inquiries and all the other information gathering organisations.

The most obvious sources of information, of course, are the trade associations and, in that respect, we do have a comprehensive report from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), published in December 2018. Maybe it was too early to have picked up the effect of the Commission's suspension of UK airline participation, but all we get is generalities, with nothing that stands out in a way that would attract popular media attention.

What we have therefore, is a pack of dogs that have failed to bark – a worrying example that is only one of many. Given the extraordinarily wide range of issues affected by Brexit, that would suggest that we are dangerously ill-informed about the true impact of our leaving the European Union. And, of even more concern, we don't seem to have a system that is capable of conducting timely or effective evaluations.

We are thus going into one of the most important political events of the century yet are staggeringly ill-informed about the potential impacts. Flybmi has brought to light but one "unknown unknown". How many more there are, we have no possible way of knowing.

It is inevitable, therefore, that faced with the extraordinary complexity and the scale of the unknown, the popular media should indulge in trivia. By far the bulk of the coverage has been on the "stranded passenger" level, reflecting the general tendency to focus on human interest stories. We have long ceased to expect the media to handle mere "techie" details.

Everywhere one looks, we tend to see the same phenomenon. Promised a revealing interview with an Airbus "boss" on the impact of Brexit, all we got from the Marr show was the same superficial approach – generalities short of any useful detail.

We are led to believe that the effect of a no-deal Brexit would be "catastrophic" for Airbus, but there was nothing on offer to tell us exactly why. Said Katherine Bennett, "It's time for the politicians to come together and help us not have this uncertainty. And we as business people feel we need to speak up and ensure the facts are out there on the table".

But facts there were none. Not now nor previously have we been presented with a coherent, factual evaluation of the various impacts that might trouble Airbus. A company of this size and resource has both the opportunity and capability to spell out the detail, in precise, clinical terms. All we get is PR spin, in spite of the expenditure of "tens of millions of euros".

At this late stage, it is hard to know what should be done for the best. With the cri de coeur being "uncertainty" though, the most obvious need is to introduce as much certainty into the equation as is possible. But there we are trapped in the same cycle of inadequacy that has contaminated the Brexit debate throughout its entire duration.

Those "silent dogs" are not going to start barking all of a sudden, and even if they did, their noise – by its very definition - would lack coherence. We've possibly left it too late. There is no way we can catch up in time, much less drown out the disinformation.

Details which should have been the currency of debate right at the beginning, even now are only just emerging. Thus we have the Guardian looking at the impact of Brexit on the chemical industry, yet only partially catching up on issues rehearsed on this blog in January of 2017.

The only thing currently in surplus, therefore, is pessimism. At least that comes free, with no limitations on the supply.

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