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Up against an army of spin doctors . . .


A column in the latest Sunday Star-Times by political journalist Andrea Vance did a great job of taking us behind the carefully-managed facade of communications by our Government and its bureaucracy. It should help to create a public outcry that forces a rethink in the Beehive and among our top mandarins, who so like the facade they are continuously reinforcing it.

Vance described the challenge journalists face now trying to get to the heart and the truth of a story, “up against an army of well-paid spin doctors”.

“At every level, the Government manipulates the flow of information. It has not delivered on promises to fix the broken and politically-influenced OIA (Official Information Act) system. It also keeps journalists distracted and overburdened by a rolling maul of press conferences and announcements, which are often meaningless or repetitive and prevent sustained or detailed questioning,” wrote Vance, after outlining her own and Stuff’s travails reporting on a Government its leader promised would be the most open and transparent we have seen.

Instead, Vance said it had tightened the control of information and was “one of the most thin-skinned and secretive I have experienced” in more than 20 years as a journalist.

Communications specialists had ballooned under this Government: each Minister has at least two, the Prime Minister has four; PR staff at the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment have gone from 48 to 64 — close to the “staggering” 72 at transport agency Waka Kotahi, up from 26 five years ago; the Ministry for the Environment has gone from 10 PR staff to 18 since Labour took office; the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s comms team has more than doubled to 25.

Despite (or perhaps because of) this entourage, “Even squeezing basic facts out of an agency is a frustrating, tortuous and often futile exercise”. MBIE and the Ministry of Health were especially notorious for stymying simple requests.

Vance finished by saying the public should care about this because their impression of our Government was the very opposite.

“They see a prime minister that has captivated the world with her ‘authentic’ communication style, intimate social media postings, daily Covid briefings and proactive releases of Cabinet papers.

“It is an artfully-created mirage, because the reality is very different. This is a Government that is only generous with the information that it chooses to share.”

  1. Elaine Clark says:

    I think the Government should scrap all the communication jobs and give the millions of dollars freed up to the nurses. Nurses are essential, spin-doctors aren’t.
    If this happens then reporters will actually be able to dig out stories, instead of having to rely on press releases after struggling to get further information.
    Our taxpayer and ratepayer dollars are paying for these propaganda machines.
    Thank goodness for the Local Democracy Reporting programme. This helps to keep elected officials honest.


    Good on you for sharing this Jeremy.

  3. D Arthur says:

    Thank you for these facts – they are horrifying. Apart from unresolved or truly commercially sensitive items (and this is an overworked excuse!) all government and council decisions should be reported without spin.
    The ones you note number almost 300 and I imagine these unproductive staff (or contractors) are paid well – as Elaine says, these jobs could go towards extra nurses, (or teachers).
    I am a Labour supporter but find this unacceptable.
    Are you able to advise the number and/or cost of “communications specialists” employed and/or contracted by Gisborne District Council?