Hard News by Russell Brown

51

Spin Spun

The Sunday Star Times page three lead story that opened with the words "The Labour-led government is being dubbed the 'most-spun' government ever, as its workforce of spin doctors balloons to almost twice the level it was five years earlier," is quite the work of irony.

As Jim Tully pointed out in Ruth Laugesen's story, and as IrishBill at The Standard reiterates, the more troubling reality is not so much an increase in public communications staff as the hollowing out of New Zealand's newsrooms. It's not hard to see why this happens: it's the money.

Especially in the print field, and especially in the freelance sector, remuneration for journalism has gone backwards as PR wages have ballooned. It used to be that you needed to bring at least a few years of actual media experience to a comms job. Not any more. Kids with only the most junior journalistic record can land public comms jobs that pay them the kind of money they could only expect at the far end of a journalistic career. If you can stick it, it's a no-brainer

But that's not the irony. The irony is that the story is based on a press release crafted by a spin doctor at the taxpayer's expense. It's this one, issued under the name of National Party State Services spokesman Gerry Brownlee and headed 'Labour 'most spun' Government ever'.

Brownlee did not write the press release or submit the Official Information Act requests himself (the numbers are compiled from select committee questions and OIA requests). He has staff for that. An accompanying Word document lists "churchst" as the author and "Parilamentary Services" as the company.

And, as Poneke predicted late last year, the staff have been busy. National has been drip-feeding OIA-based stories through the holiday period, outdoing even the government agency comms staff tasked with churning out releases for the silly season.

In a way, I suppose, we've got value for them. Simon Power's crime stats were run basically unmolested in the news media. And Brownlee's release was faithfully recorded in the Herald and on Newstalk ZB ("There are claims the Labour-led Government is the 'most-spun' government in history"), Radio New Zealand ('Government PR costing taxpayers $47m - National') and TVNZ ('More spin doctors on govt payroll').

Only Laugesen was professional enough to bother seeking comment and context in reporting the story. In doing so, she discovered that a great many of the 448 public comms staff are not in fact in media relations and cannot reasonably be called "spin doctors". Public agencies communicate with us and provide us with information on a scale that was unknown a decade ago -- largely via departmental websites and publications.

It should hardly be a surprise that the Ministry of Social Development has 54 comms staff. It communicates with millions of New Zealanders, through no fewer than 18 websites, along with various brochures and campaigns. ACC has a similar task. The increase in communications activity from the Police in the last five years has been substantial.

No one, however, has bothered to ask after the figures that aren't there. Brownlee's release is quite canny. It demonstrates that the number of staff and contractors put together has nearly doubled in five years, and now comes at a cost of $47 million annually. But the change in cost in those five years, corrected for inflation, is nowhere to be found. Could it be that the retention of more contractors has provided economies over providing comms services with permanent staff? (IRD actually spends more on contract comms work than on comms staff salaries.) We don't know. It's all quite nicely … spun. And you paid for it.

There are obvious advantages for the public in an increase in the direct provision of information from public agencies -- and, to an extent, even in an upsurge of media releases: where once we only had the mediated version via the newspapers, we can now consult the original on Scoop. But insofar as there is an increase in media spin making its way into news columns, it's a matter of concern. On the other hand, you can see why everyone does it. Because it's clearly a bloody doddle.

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