A Government of spin redux

Written By: - Date published: 10:40 am, November 16th, 2015 - 26 comments
Categories: articles, censorship, Deep stuff, democracy under attack, Media, national, same old national, spin, you couldn't make this shit up - Tags:

Herald war room clarification

I posted recently about a Herald article describing how an ERO report was rewritten to present the Minister of Education in a better light. The article subsequently disappeared and I wondered why this had occurred.

Well the reason is now pretty clear.  It must have been withdrawn after pressure was applied by the Government. The “clarification”, which does not appear on the Herald website, was in the printed edition.  But a brief parsing of the article and the emails released under the OIA request makes you question the decision by the Herald to do so.

I presume the retraction was discussed with the Government.  If so you have to wonder at the phrasing used.

Firstly the description of the Education Review Office as an “education watchdog” completely understates and misdescribes its role and importance and you have to wonder why its actual name was not used.  The ERO is the New Zealand government entity that evaluates and reports on the education and care of students in schools and early childhood services.  It has a statutory power to initiate reviews, investigate, report and publish findings on the provision of education to all young New Zealanders.  It is not some group of well meaning individuals keeping track on Government behaviour.

 

The retraction then addresses the claim that the report “was partly rewritten after high-level meetings about its risk to the Government”.  It states that the sequence of events is correct but that there was no connection between them.  The defence offered is that the Ministry did not seek improper influence over the Education Review Office and that the changes to some of its recommendations were not made as a result of external pressure or ministry meetings.

So let’s break this apology down.  Basically the Herald is saying yes there were high level meetings between ERO and the Ministry about the report’s risk to Government, that the report was then partially rewritten, but the changes were not made as a result of the meetings and the Ministry did not seek to improperly influence the ERO.

But when you read the emails you have to wonder at the denial that the report was rewritten as a result of “external pressure or ministry meetings”.

The Save our Schools website has copies of the emails on which the original article was based.  They talk about an integrated comms plan and a “war room”.  The emails contain these passages:

  • “I talked to [redacted] at ERO this afternoon to outline our concerns about it … instead, they will do a soft launch, but it will happen once we have our reactive lines sorted out and we’re all lined up.”
  • “The comms briefing is with the ECE war room attendees for feedback.”
  • “[Redacted] has told me that ERO is rewriting the report to put the onus firmly on the providers to ensure that their staff are firmly up to date regarding curriculum development, PLD and all the other matters covered by the report.

Here are the first few paragraphs from the now removed article:

A damning report by an education watchdog about babies and toddlers was partially rewritten after high-level meetings about its “risk” to the Government.

Documents show Ministry of Education advisers also tried to mitigate the impact of the Education Review Office report by planting good-news stories to balance negative media coverage, and carefully crafting a communications “narrative” during “war-room” meetings before its release.

Politicians and sector experts say the behaviour is concerning, and have raised queries about potential political interference in an independent body, plus a lack of transparency at the agencies.

The article was perfectly appropriate.  It gives us an insight into how a potentially embarrassing report being prepared by the entity with a statutory power of oversight was changed to make the report more acceptable to the Government.

And you have to wonder about the decision to retract and clarify.  The original article was a perfectly appropriate analysis of what had happened.  The Ministry clearly sought to have the report changed and to have a comms plan ready to go as soon as the report was released to paint the Government in a better light.  For the Government to quibble about whether the influence was improper or not does not justify this example of self censorship.

You just have to think about the Herald’s reporting of the Donghua Liu David Cunliffe story and its refusal to apologise to realise how extreme its decision to withdraw this story is.  The pressure to retract is a thundering reinforcement of my original proposal that this Government is a government of spin.

26 comments on “A Government of spin redux ”

  1. Sacha 1

    From the OIA response to the journalist: http://www.ea.org.nz/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/infants-and-toddlers-correspondence.pdf

    The email dated 9 March is a doozy – “let [ERO] know .. if you are happy with the wording of the recommendation and the nature of the key messages”

  2. At the risk of defending the indefensible, there are two possible complainants to the Herald about this story. One is the Ministry. But the other is the ERO itself – after all, the story implies that it caved in to political pressure and rewrote the report as a consequence.

    Given that the report came out under the name of an identifiable individual, I wonder if suggestions of legal action (defamation) were being bandied about?

    • Sacha 2.1

      See the email I referenced above. No sign of arm-twisting, just two agencies falling over one another to protect their Minister from having to admit the consequences of her government’s decision to reduce the qualifications required in ECE centres.

    • mickysavage 2.2

      You might be right Andrew. Even more reason for the OIA to be used. The use of the phrase “education watchdog” seems very clumsy.

    • Sacha 2.3

      And the email trail would be a pretty good defence of truth, surely?

  3. RedBaronCV 3

    Really quite stunning isn’t it. Looks like long delays for releasing built into the plan and the sheer number of high priced? staff involved in the “messaging” for this suggests a higher priority on $ around looking good ( or quashing any negative blowback) rather than actually doing good with the $ for the children.

  4. ianmac 4

    There must be some in ERO who really believed in their work. If they find that their work has been tampered with, I imagine it would be a good case for blowing a whistle.
    If tampering happened this time then it has or will happen again. There was the case of the Southland Principal who protested against National Standards and was forced out of her job by the Ministry and a tame Commissioner.

    • RJL 4.1

      There must be some in ERO who really believed in their work…I imagine it would be a good case for blowing a whistle.

      Presumably this is exactly why Kirsty Johnson OIAed the documents in the first place.

  5. Tracey 5

    How does this impact anyone else publishing the article?

    • Bill 5.1

      I’d imagine the answer to be no impact whatsoever. How could there be? There is no injunction or any such. The Herald print a story. It’s in the public domain.

      That ‘The Herald’ ‘voluntarily’ back-tracked on their initial analysis with nothing much apart from fairly weak and ungrounded counter inferences is a case of “Sure – whatever”.

      • Tracey 5.1.1

        I guess I meant IF the reason fro the backtrack as base don a threat of suing for defamation, the “fact” of the defamation or defaming comments would stand against whoever republished it? Presumably a wanrnign could be made first.

        • Bill 5.1.1.1

          No threat of any level means a thing without follow-through.

          Let’s say there were murmurings along the lines of being sued. And let’s say they really, really meant it. And let’s say that persuaded the Herald to back-track. Nothing transpired, so there can be no consequences for any third parties.

          And anyway, all the Herald is saying is that it disagrees with its own initial analysis.The facts as presented, stand.

          • Tracey 5.1.1.1.1

            Leaving aside the poor grammar in the clarification, you are right that the Herald is apologising for its inference which is says is not proven.

            I was just trying to throw some light on the notion that it was a threat of defamation that caused the retraction, when it appears that the inference they drew, was actually sustainable/arguable (therefore not defamatory). Therefore IF it was a threat of defamation, such threat would now be extended to those who republished.

  6. Aaron 6

    So can I just check that I’ve got this summary right:

    The governement has pressured the Herald to change what it wrote about the government pressuring the MoE to change what it wrote.

    Is that it?

  7. “The Herald editors could easily have tracked through the sequence of events as I have done, and determined as I did, and readers will, that the ministry is lying.”

    https://networkonnet.wordpress.com

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