Ruth Laugeson has an article in the Sunday Star Times about the increased numbers of communications staff employed by ministries. Entitled “Spinning govt yarn costs $47m”, the article is in many ways a lovely piece of spin in its own right.
The basis of the article is that the number of spindoctors employed by the Government has greatly increased – we’re told it’s doubled from five years ago and is much much larger than it was in 1984. This is totally true. But one of the aspects of good spin is what you leave out.
There are a lot of reasons general communications staff might increase, most notably the fact that it takes a lot of people and effort to maintain an up-to-date website and having no website or an out of date one leaves you open to a lot of criticism (especially if you’re a ministry). But this story is about spindoctors and if we’re talking media then the truth of the matter is that over the last five years (and longer) I’ve watched the communications output from everyone increase. Nowadays every bloody thing gets its own media release. I just looked on scoop, for example, and it seems that Coca Cola has decided a new campaign to sell bottled water deserves its own media release. Note – we’re not talking about anything revolutionary about the product – this is an media campaign promoting an advertising campaign in turn promoting water. I mean really, why would they bother?
They bother because there’s a good chance someone will pick it up and they know nobody would ever pick it up in a million years unless they fax and email it to every newsroom in the country.
Y’see, nearly every newsroom in New Zealand has had the guts ripped out of it by its owners. Back in the day a newspaper reporter might spend a day doing one story and the newsroom would be full. Nowadays you can give one journo an internet connection and a phone and expect them to churn out ten stories a day (I’ve heard stories of ZB journos doing up to 20!) and that’s nine other journos you don’t have to employ. And that means profits. APN, who owns the Herald currently makes about 13% profit on capital annually – their target is 20% and they regularly post annual profits around the $100m mark from their NZ operations alone. Fairfax generally makes twice as much or more.
Of course the news suffers a lot when you cut frontline staff. Nothing can be investigated in depth and there’s very little time to gather balanced comment. If you’re a journo tasked with 10 stories a day and someone such as Coca Cola or a Ministry (or the National Party) offers to provide you with the “research” and quotes you need to make one, what do you do? The answer is you use what they give you and move onto the next story ‘cos fuck it, you’re on close to minimum wage once you count your unpaid overtime anyway.
That’s why the most telling line in the whole of Laugeson’s story comes from Jim Tully:
government and corporate public relations staff were growing as newsrooms were shrinking.
It wasn’t worth employing PR people in 1984 because you could tell a journo whatever you wanted and you’d know they’d have the time and resources to cover the story properly. In fact if you brought something up with them you’d be guaranteeing that your opponent’s opinion on the matter and the facts themselves would get a good airing.
Nowadays you can be fairly sure that if your media release is picked up, large chunks of it are likely to be run almost verbatim and if your opponent doesn’t get a release of their own out quick enough then it’s highly unlikely they’ll be heard. And your own issues or achievements won’t be heard about if you don’t speak up either. In today’s news climate nobody would hear about what the government (or anyone else) does without spindoctors and I find that depressing.
The real story behind the increase in spindoctors is the story of our newsrooms being run down and our news increasingly coming directly from the keyboards of vested interests because we’ve got a media that cares about profits and not about paying people to actually gather our news.
Considering we rely on information from the media in order to make important decisions about our lives and our country (such as who to vote for) that’s a very dangerous situation. But it’s not one we’re going to see examined in the SST anytime soon.