Thursday, 3 September 2009

Burn the trees! Kill the planet! Blame the internet!

The front page of The Daily Telegraph today has a story that leads: £224 EXTRA ON POWER BILLS FOR CUSTOMERS WHO DON'T PAY ONLINE. Shocking? Hardly. Clutching at straws? Almost certainly. But in clutching at these straws, the national press has instead grasped the wrong end of the stick - again.

Let's forget for a minute how minor a story this actually is to make the front page - apart from anything else, it's PR from price comparison site uSwitch - because it does perfectly fit the average Telegraph reader's suspicious view towards technology (and besides, the accompanying downpage story is GIRLS ARE BORN WITH FEAR OF SPIDERS, SAY SCIENTISTS).

No, let's instead look at the fact that it's a load of bollocks.

The claim is that customers who pay their energy bills in the traditional methods - cash, cheque, blood, children - have to part with more money than those who pay online. This is certainly true. But the story attacks energy providers for roasting that old chestnut 'the digital divide', claiming in its opening sentence:

Nearly 14 million households are being penalised for not setting up an online account to pay their energy bills.

What the writer fails to understand, or fails to recognise, is that they aren't being penalised - online customers are being rewarded. There is a difference. In fact, non-online customers are saving money.

Their bills have been cut. Yes, cut. But online bills have been cut by more, to reward customers for choosing to save paper (because that's obviously the reason they set up an online account). I'm no green freak but I know that cutting down on paper use is A Very Good Thing, and online bills should be encouraged for that very reason.

This is not a tax on people who don't use the internet, as the naysayers (nay)say. To use the same analogy, it's a tax rebate for those who do use it.

Audrey Gallagher, energy expert at Government-funded watchdog Consumer Focus, said, "All too often it's vulnerable customers, such as older people, who lose out", but once again, they're not. 'Older, vulnerable' people are not paying anything more than they used to; they're simply not saving as much as 'younger, invulnerable' online customers.

What kind of dog-in-a-manger society is this, that we can't allow other people to save money if we're not saving it as well? Why don't we firebomb building societies with a better interest rate than our own while we're at it?