Today I want to discuss the need for government, both local and central, to be more open. They must share their decision making early and starting to trust us the community. Try telling the truth and the facts rather than spin.
It must be frustrating for journalists writing a story to have to battle their way through a myriad of “communications” experts. It wouldn’t matter where It’s the same in the public and the private sectors. Communications people are everywhere. Most of these communications people started off in the media. When Facebook and Google sucked up their employer’s revenue streams, people had to find places elsewhere to pay the rent at home. This is when they turned from poacher to gamekeeper. For those on the inside now it is possible to make things difficult for journalists by delaying responses. These newly powerful communications “experts” have also entrenched positions in institutions where those who were in positions of responsibility could no longer say anything to the media without them telling them what they could, or should, say.
Most journalists had my phone number when I was Mayor. They would ring and I would give them my unfettered opinion on what they wanted to know. I don’t know how many times Bryn Sommerville, who oversaw our 4-person communications team, would come into my office and say “when the Press rings up about (whatever) you should say (you fill this in). Most times I would say “too late. I’ve already commented, and that’s not what I said”. He’s then say, “you bloody said what?”. He’d then ring the Press and say, “what the mayor meant was (another opinion)”. We still joke about those days. I was a communications expert’s nightmare.
This would mean that the media would always know what I thought about a topic, and they could decide between Bryn and me as to who had the most interesting line for their story. On Friday night we all gathered at Warners public bar to compare war stories for the week. Journalists and politicians.
Now everything is monitored. And sanitised. I hate it.
Let’s consider a couple of recent examples of spin merchants often mendacious work through political pronouncements.
The first involves Kieran McAnulty Labour MP for Wairarapa and Chief Government Whip. Newsroom recently asked him what the party’s position was on supporting member’s bills from other parties by-passing the biscuit tin. Here’s how they reported it:
His (written) reply was circumspect. “The process to decide on a bill bypassing the ballot must meet a higher bar than for a bill randomly pulled from the biscuit tin,” he said.
“When a Labour member intends to submit a bill into the ballot it is discussed at caucus. If it is supported then all members automatically lend their support for the bill to bypass the ballot. It is then up to the member to find support from other members or parties. The fact this has not yet occurred suggests it is possible for members or a party to support the bill, but not support it to bypass the ballot.”
What if the request came from a different party?
“We would consider each request and discuss the merits of supporting the bill to be drawn and discussed without a ballot. From memory, we have only done this a couple of times. Requests for this have not been common.”
This is a lot of horses**t. It’s spin from the communications team. If Kieran was allowed to answer in the honest Irish way, which he is more than capable of, it would have made a much more interesting story. And probably more honest. It would also have enabled the topic to be opened to public scrutiny. The key issue is how political power is exercised.
The second involves Carmel Sepuloni in an article about a person trapped overseas by Covid being given a massive account by MSD for the pension she was paid while she was overseas. https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/300511266/pay-up-grandma-pensioners-trapped-overseas-by-covid19-hit-with-huge-fines.
The response was:
But Minister for Social Development Carmel Sepuloni says she is confident MSD is exercising discretion in the way the legislation is applied, and that it is being assessed on a case-by-case basis. “Every case is different and any applications for reviews of decisions will be prioritised.”
This was written by a communications person protecting the decision makers at MSD. I’m sure Carmel could have said something which sounded slightly more compassionate, and empathetic.
By MPs allowing communications supposed “experts” controlling what they are saying they often come across as defensive, uncaring and, quite frankly, wooden.
On Saturday in the Press there was yet another example of the Ministry of Health being less than honest. Again. Just remember how dishonest they were with our city when they wrote the executive of the CDHB off and ensured that they were removed. These MOH guys are power crazy and often very secretive. Here’s the article: https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/health/coronavirus/127748782/covid19-response-minister-chris-hipkins-presented-a-vaccine-rollout-plan-that-was-millions-of-doses-out-of-whack.
The article started with this comment:
After almost a year of trying to hide an embarrassing error, the Ministry of Health was this week forced into revealing it presented a vaccine roll-out plan that was off by millions of doses.
The article quoted Minister Hipkins as saying:
Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins introduced the document as a “graph” at the regular 1pm press conference on March 17, 2021. The labels outlined the number of doses to be given each week and the dates at which different groups of people would get them.
Hipkins described it as part of a process that had been “worked through very carefully”.
That’s because the Minister was reporting what he was told by the Ministry. When MOH hide behind not answering queries the journalists had no option but to appeal to the Ombudsman. Eventually the MOH were told:
the ministry had acted unreasonably by refusing Stuff’s Official Information Act request when a dataset depicting the roll-out was held by the agency.
The Ombudsman’s enquiry revealed that:
when compared to the data Stuff was able to reconstruct, that the graph (my comment: which MOH had given the Minister) was incorrect by millions of doses. This error was never officially corrected.
When MOH were asked for a comment on being forced to admit they had misled the Minister and the public their response was:
The ministry was unable to respond to a request for comment about this story before deadline.
In my opinion this was a sackable offence.
Another example of spin was a report on RNZ on the 9th of February. The firefighter’s union stated they were not going to work in future with a fire truck which had failed many times over the years. It arrived at a fire in Wellington last week and failed again. The Fire Services Commission did not respond to the failure of the unit they commented that “the vehicle did not impact on the outcome of the fire”.
I guess that states that the house burnt down and …so what?
So, it was interesting to read this article in Stuff https://www.stuff.co.nz/opinion/127682814/when-did-our-public-service-get-so-arrogant#comments.
When we consider the examples above it was interesting to read on Stuff last week when the editor of the Dominion Post wrote about her thoughts when she returned to NZ and discovered:
…open government appears to be on the wane. This is partly because of the growth in the “communications industrial complex”, where vast battalions of people now work to deflect and avoid or answer in the most oblique manner possible. We journalists are vastly outnumbered by spin doctors.
That comment is correct. The Christchurch City Council has more journalists than the Press. They now have over 40.
She then wrote:
Perhaps the most alarming, and certainly the most prevalent, trend I’ve noticed is the almost complete refusal of government departments and agencies to allow journalists to speak to subject experts.
Like, you know, the people who are implementing complicated reforms and know what they are talking about.
Instead, all questions go through the communications unit, and almost always via email. That means we have no opportunity to ask for clarification or follow-ups or even to get answers in plain English. We often just get insufficient answers written in bureaucratese.
But my favourite must be this supremely arrogant line from the Ministry of Health, asked about releasing data during an Omicron wave: “We will release additional information if it is determined that there is a need to do so.”
I’m not sure that we can expect change soon. However, public figures must make themselves much more available to the media. It’s time for the media to have access to information from those who are either writing policy, or those implementing it. Within organisations. There needs to be a whole level of openness to questions. I am afraid that Christchurch City Council is getting worse when it comes to information being available. A question under the Local Government Information Act is often not supplied within 20 working days. The Act states that the reply must be supplied as soon as possible but at least within 20 working days.
It’s election year. If the political debates are to be open so must the institution which serves the elected officials. We will be monitoring the OIA responses carefully.