Andrea Vance has cast aside the spin and given us all a glimpse behind the scenes of what actually occurs in the Never Never Land that Jacinda Ardern and her army of spin doctors have created and declared is the most open and transparent government ever:

From the moment she took office in 2017, Jacinda Ardern promised her government would be the most open and transparent New Zealand has seen.

In her first formal speech to Parliament she pledged: “This government will foster a more open and democratic society. It will strengthen transparency around official information.”

Since then the numbers of faceless communications specialists have skyrocketed. The Government’s iron grip on the control of information has tightened.

And it is now harder than ever to get information.

Stuff

So the artifice started from the get go. They’ve never come close to even trying to honour what is yet another broken promise.

In my 20-year plus time as a journalist, this Government is one of the most thin-skinned and secretive I have experienced. Many of my colleagues say the same.

Even squeezing basic facts out of an agency is a frustrating, torturous and often futile exercise.

Stuff

Worse than the hated John Key government? Wow, it must be bad, because Andrea Vance has got her socialist knickers in a right bunch.

Vance then goes on to detail the abject cowardice of some ministers in the face of legitimate questioning by journalists:

Take the last week. Two senior Stuff journalists attempted to interview Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta, at a time when the China-Australia-New-Zealand relationship is under intense international scrutiny.

It didn’t happen. Not because of any geo-political sensitivities. Nor something as trivial as a diary clash. The paranoid and hyper-sensitive minister objected to taking questions from two journalists at once.

In the same week, Mahuta released detailed reports on the country’s creaking drinking, waste and stormwater infrastructure. They paint a dire picture and the issue needs urgent public debate.

Yet Mahuta refused to answer detailed questions about proposed changes. She opted to give just one interview – cherry-picking a reporter from TVNZ. A coup for the state broadcaster, but a serious blow to accountability.

I fought my own battle. In early February I requested information about Le Lapérouse, a cruise ship refused entry to New Zealand.

I wanted to understand more about a decision which cost the country millions of dollars, particularly as the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) had previously refused to answer my questions.

Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi opted instead to call a short-notice press conference – to which I was deliberately not invited. They didn’t like the questions, and wanted to get ahead of Stuff’s story, to shape the narrative.

This cynical and obstructive behaviour was made all the worse because Faafoi himself is a former journalist.

My OIA request – which by law should be answered within 20 working days – was delayed, and eventually took five times that length.

The Ombudsman agreed the hold-up was unacceptable, and I got an apology. It made no difference – MBIE still delivered the information on Wednesday, the date it had originally chosen.

Stuff

This outrageous behaviour is unacceptable but is occurring because journalists like Andrea Vance have, for far too long, allowed these ministers and the government itself to get away with such a shabby adherence to the law. If media hadn’t been so cosy with their favoured government, they wouldn’t now be suffering from these issues.

It’s now very difficult for journalists to get to the heart and the truth of a story. We are up against an army of well-paid spin doctors.

Since the current Government took office, the number of communications specialists have ballooned. Each minister has at least two press secretaries. (Ardern has four).

In the year Labour took office, the Ministry for the Environment had 10 PR staff. They now have 18. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Trade more than doubled their staff – up to 25.

MBIE blew out from 48 staff to 64. None of those five dozen specialists could give me those figures for many weeks – and again I was forced to ask the Ombudsman to intervene.

The super ministry – and its colleagues uptown at the Health Ministry – are notorious for stymieing even the simplest requests. Health’s information gatekeepers are so allergic to journalists they refuse to take phone calls, responding only (and sporadically) to emails.

But it is the New Zealand Transport Agency that take the cake: employing a staggering 72 staff to keep its message, if not its road-building, on track – up from 26 over five years.

At every level, the Government manipulates the flow of information. It has not delivered on promises to fix the broken, and politically influenced OIA system.

Stuff

Many of those spin merchants will be former journalists as well, making their behaviour even more egregious. But again, journalists only have themselves to blame. They are being spoon-fed the narrative from the Prime Minister herself:

It also keeps journalists distracted and over-burdened with a rolling maul of press conferences and announcements, which are often meaningless or repetitive and prevent sustained or detailed questioning.

In this age of live-streaming and blogging, organisations often feel obliged to cover every stage-managed utterance for fear of missing out.

And the prime minister’s office makes sure their audience is captured, starting the week and cementing the agenda with a conference call with political editors.

Stuff

And there we have it…media are rung and told “this is what you are going to write about this week”. Sustained propaganda if you will, and the media have been complicit. The political editors are now too afraid to bite the hands that feed them millions in government cash and a soft agenda, designed to make Jacinda Ardern seem to be something she clearly isn’t.

The BFD. Photoshopped image credit Luke

Perhaps the trials and tribulations of the nation’s journalists do not concern you. Why should you care?

Because the public’s impression of this government is 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-crafted mirage, because the reality is very different. This is a Government that is only generous with the information that it chooses to share.

Stuff

Maybe, just maybe, Andrea Vance and other journalists have realised that, for nearly four years, they have been played like a cheap fiddle, by a callous and deceitful prime minister, using them like a dirty rag to polish her image.

Perhaps if they’d actually done their job they’d not have to feel so betrayed.

Kudos to Andrea Vance for raising this, but sadly Stuff, her outlet, are so beholden to and so complicit with the government it is hard to give them any credit when it is so clearly due in this case.

Media have beclowned themselves for so long they’ve ceased to be credible. They are going to have to do a whole lot more of this sort of work before we will start to trust them again.

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Open and Transparent?
Cam Slater

Cam Slater

As much at home writing editorials as being the subject of them, Cam has won awards, including the Canon Media Award for his work on the Len Brown/Bevan Chuang story. When he’s not creating the news,...