When did our public service get so arrogant?
By Anne Fifield,
Anna Fifield is editor of Stuff’s Wellington newsroom and the Dominion Post.
OPINION: I have to confess I laughed when a press release arrived in my inbox last week: “Chief Ombudsman applauds No 1 global ranking in Transparency International index.”
I laughed because I have been shocked since returning to New Zealand at the end of 2020, after two decades reporting overseas, at just how obstructive and deliberately untransparent our public service has become.
On closer look, I saw that the Transparency International index related to perceptions of corruption around the world. This is of course a patently good thing.
But 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.
And it is partly because of the very tight media ship captained by Jacinda Ardern. The prime minister has won plaudits the world over for her empathetic and straightforward communication style.
But it’s an artfully crafted mirage, as my colleague Andrea Vance wrote ( link )last year. “At every level, the Government manipulates the flow of information,” she wrote.
When I was writing about New Zealand’s response to the pandemic for The Washington Post, almost every minister or ministry I contacted for an interview responded with a variation on: I’ll need to check with the prime minister’s office.
Since coming home, I’ve been surprised by the lack of access to ministers outside carefully choreographed press conferences.
When, in her role of foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta went on her first trip overseas at the end of last year – across Asia then the Middle East to the US – there was no press access to her before or after the trip for the media organisations unable to report along the way.
TVNZ, which has a North America correspondent, taped one of Mahuta’s aides threatening to withhold or curtail access in Canada because it showed footage of the minister dealing with back pain on the trip.
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 actually 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.
There is no opportunity to get them to put their words in a more digestible form. There’s no opportunity to ask them to explain the background to a decision.
I would have thought it was in the Government’s interest to get across its talking points and try to frame the conversation. Apparently not.
This obfuscation and obstruction is bad for our society for two key reasons.
One: It’s in everyone’s interest to have journalists understand the complicated subjects they’re writing about. We need to ask questions. We can’t explain things we don’t understand.
Two: It’s called the public service for a reason. They work for the public, aka you. It is the job of the Fourth Estate to hold the powerful to account. So we should be able to ask reasonable questions – like “When will the $1.25 billion Transmission Gully motorway open?” – and expect something that at least resembles an answer.
I have never encountered anything quite like this in any other democracy I’ve worked in: Not when I was a White House correspondent during the Obama administration, not when I worked in Japan or South Korea.
To be clear, our country is free and open compared to many other parts of the world. But I’m not comparing us to Iran (where I used to ask pointed questions at foreign ministry press conferences all the time) or China (ditto).
I’m comparing us to other proudly open and democratic societies. And I’m comparing us to the us we used to be. Where a journalist could ask a straight question and get a straight answer and deliver it to you – straight.
Q. To the New Zealand Olympic Committee and the Government Communications Security Bureau: What advice has been given to athletes at the Winter Olympics around cyber security and the My2022 app?
A. NZOC: “We’re advising athletes to take sensible precautions.” (Would not elaborate.)
GCSB: “We won’t discuss specific events or advice given for security reasons.”
Q. To the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade: Could we get the name and job title of the person representing New Zealand at the opening ceremony?
A. The official is the Acting Deputy Head of Mission. (Did not provide name.)
Q. To the Ministry of Health: What the new self- isolation advice will look like under phase 2 and when we will get it?
A. “Detail around changes to case and contact management timeframes and requirements will be announced before any move between phases of the Omicron response.”
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.”