Managing the party line

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PHOTO: ODT FILES
When we read the Government’s spending on communications staff has increased by 50% in four years, we wonder if many citizens might feel there has been a corresponding improvement in the quality of the information they receive.

A New Zealand Herald report says communications staff are costing the Government nearly $90 million a year.

In an ideal world, this might be seen as a great thing.

More information, in a variety of forms, can be made easily accessible to the public.

But concerns raised by the Citizens Advice Bureau in its Leave No One Behind campaign, drawing attention to the difficulty people are having with government agencies’ emphasis on online interactions, suggest information is often confusing.

They say there needs to be a genuine choice for people about how they can interact — whether online, face-to-face, through others or by phone.

"It is critical that as a country we do not allow the digital transformation of public services to further entrench disadvantage and vulnerability."

Dealing with the media is only part of the work of communications staff, but the burgeoning of such media minders in organisations large and small has been of concern to traditional media for some years.

Increasingly, there is criticism that communications strategies employed by these organisations, both in government and outside it, are designed to ensure the emphasis is always on good news and bad news is buried or obscured.

Whereas once our reporters could readily speak directly to people holding positions of authority (people often highly paid for their services), now arranging to talk to someone is convoluted, if it happens at all, and much information has to be gathered through often frustrating email correspondence.

Typically, pertinent but possibly controversial questions are not answered fully or ignored, and responses are sent out late in the day. If there are further queries, the person who could have answered them has left work by then and unavailable.

Also long gone are the days when a reporter at the scene of a crash could chat to the police on the spot.

This allows organisations to have much more control of the message than is desirable in a democracy.

Use of the Official Information Act is also fraught, agencies often delaying information request responses contrary to the law, making improper redactions, and gambling on the fact that if the affected requester seeks the intervention of the ombudsman, by the time it is resolved, the public will have lost interest in the issue involved.

There has been a rapid decline in journalist numbers over recent years as traditional news organisations tighten their belts to cope with reduced advertising and circulation and the proliferation of " free" news.

Many journalists have been attracted to jobs in public relations with better pay and hours and probably a lot less stress.

It has been suggested that PR people may outnumber journalists by six to one.

What that means is there is much more opportunity for time- poor journalists to succumb to "churnalism" whereby puff pieces and stories generated by communications staff run without adequate scrutiny.

The Labour-led Government in 2017 started with a hiss and a roar, minister for open government Clare Curran declaring her priority was that it would be the most open, most transparent government New Zealand had ever had.

The portfolio has since disappeared, leaving us wondering where that leaves the commitment to transparency.

We note the Media Freedom Committee, aware of the frustrations journalists have had dealing with district health boards and the Ministry of Health, has written to Health Minister Andrew Little expressing the need for improvements when the new agencies proposed in the health reforms take shape.

This is an opportunity for the Government to show willingness to change for the better, but we are not convinced it will be inclined to take it.

Comments

Good propaganda is not cheap.

'Spin' as my father explained to me is like taking a withdrawal on the bank account of one's personal reputation. More specifically, 'spin' is a deficit of what's said over what's done. The trouble with spin is that if gets into the spinning habit and one one continues to spin and not do, one eventually takes one spin too many, and one becomes morally bankrupt in the eyes of many, or all people. This bankruptcy event can be unexpected, sudden and violent. This I suspect will be Adern's fate, which would be the same as that of her ex-boss Tony Blair.

While Thatcher is hated by many in the UK, she is not universally loathed and despised in the way that Blair is.

Both Blair and Adern spin aggressively and continuously. Both had an early payment into their credibility account. Good Friday for Blair and COVID19 for Adern - Both drew on this asset to support spinning. We now know that Iraq was Blair's 'spin too far' - Who knows what Adern's will be. Give it another five to ten years and I think that it will be possible to insert 'Muldoon' and 'Adern' into the 'Thatcher' and 'Blair' slots in the sentence above, and it will still read pretty much true for this country.

An interesting perspective and not one I necessarily disagree with but I do take issue with a couple of your points.
I would maintain that all professional politicians "spin". It's what they do. NZ's best exponent is Winston Peters, followed by David Seymour, Ardern is but their apprentice.
Firstly, the comparison between Blair and Ardern. Ardern's "early payment into her credibility account".was her response to the Christchurch Mosque shootings. Covid 19 was the icing on the cake for her
Secondly the comparison between Thatcher and Muldoon. These two were chalk and cheese. Muldoon was a confirmed socialist. He was a firm believer in State control of the economy and the means of production and distribution. He completely controlled the agricultural industry with subsidies and import controls and distribution networks with transport licensing rules. He also had complete control over the exchange rate and release of currency. He was by any definition a socialist. Thatcher was the complete opposite. She was a committed capitalist and ended decades of socialist control in the UK.

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