Posts Tagged ‘spin doctors’

“Spinning” in a post-truth era

18 August 2016 3 comments





Two recent media stories, on two utterly disparate issues, were clear examples of how tax-payer funded media “spin doctors” were guiding government ministers to respond to questions in a certain way.

Two interviews; two ministers; both on Radio New Zealand’s ‘Morning Report‘ – and both interviews left the audience none-the-wiser afterwards.




The first, on 5 August, featured Finance  and Social Housing Minister, Bill English, defending Housing NZ’s use of flawed testing regimes for methamphetamine-use in state housing.

On 20 June this year, Housing NZ admitted that the current testing for methamphetamine use (smoking)  was flawed;

“…The current standard guidelines were written to address meth ‘cooking’ and not use, meaning they are not entirely suitable for the contamination that occurs through use of meth.

The Ministry of Health guidelines were written a while ago. At that time it wasn’t perceived that consumption would be at the levels that it has reached. For this reason the guidelines do not cover all they need to.”

Drug Foundation executive director, Ross Bell, was scathing;

“I think they’re out of control…


I don’t know how they can justify that. Housing New Zealand has spent over $20 million in the last financial year doing these tests and these cleanups. Knowing that these are flawed the minister should step in and stop taxpayers’ money being wasted and vulnerable people being punished.”

Despite the testing regime  – which TVNZ’s  ‘Fair Go‘ programme used to “detect” methamphetamine on bank-notes – “not fit for purpose”, Housing NZ has continued to use the flawed guidelines to evict tenants;


Expert questions meth contamination evictions


Housing NZ Minister, Bill English, agreed that the testing for methamphetamine was flawed;

“They’re operating to a Ministry of Health guideline which I understand is internationally standard, but is regarded as not quite appropriate, particularly for dealing for use of P in houses…


Now, the test as I understand it, indicates the presence of any P at all which may be a very low health risk.”

The interesting aspect to Radio NZ’s Susie Ferguson’s interview with Minister English was not that he disagreed with the premise that the P testing regime  was flawed. He gave a straight answer to Ms Ferguson’s question;

Susie Ferguson: “Are these tests fit for purpose?”

Bill English: “Ah, no. And Housing NZ have said that.”

English then spent the next seven minutes defending the flawed testing regime.

In part of his interview, the “g”-word became glaringly  prominent;

“Housing New Zealand is in the position where there is currently a moh guideline, you can’t just wish that away – Housing New Zealand are not health experts.

Ministry of Health stand by the guideline, and the Ministry of Health are the statutory organisation that promulgates the guideline.

I think everyone involved with this is frustrated, I suppose except for the scientists that gave us the guideline in the first place.”

It is obvious what phrase English’s media spin-doctors told him to stay “on-message”.

He referred to “guidelines” no less than sixteen times within those seven minutes.


“Technical matters”


On 8 August, in an unrelated matter, our esteemed Dear Leader, John Key, was interviewed over  China’s threats to launch a trade war if New Zealand investigated cheap imports/dumping of sub-standard Chinese steel.

As Vernon Small described the situation on 4 August, in the Dominion Post;

Now let’s see if we’ve got this right.

In early June Chinese officials find a type of fungus (Neofabraea actinidiae) on board a bunch of kiwifruit heading into the country.

Nothing much happens.

Then in early July a message is passed, through back channels, to Zespri and Fonterra (and potentially other primary producers) that China is extremely peeved that a complaint has been laid about the potential dumping of cheap Chinese steel in our market.

A steel inquiry by regulators here could lead to the imposition of non-tariff barriers that could slow down our exports, the warning suggests. And, what’s more, China is angry that the complaint was even accepted for consideration by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE).

After some to-ing and fro-ing, China officially denies it draws a link between a potential steel-dumping inquiry and sales of our food products. The various New Zealand agencies and exporters chant in unison that it is an “unsubstantiated rumour” that such a link had been made.

Trade Minister Todd McClay at first tries to dismiss media reports as reflecting a single low-level source talking to Zespri. But he later back tracks and apologises to Prime Minister John Key and concedes the Zespri warning was not all. In fact, there had been “discussions and limited correspondence over the past few months as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has endeavoured to assess the veracity of these reports”. But in the end they were not verified.


On July 22, Zespri said it had experienced no problems. 

But on July 29, just a few weeks after the initial “warning” – and right in sync with that warning –  Chinese border agencies impose non-tariff barriers, involving a risk notification and strengthened inspection and quarantine processes, on our kiwifruit.

Zespri says their unwelcome fungal friend does not affect food safety and is not a pathogen. It exists in several countries, including New Zealand, Australia, Holland, the United States and Ecuador – and potentially China itself, the home of the chinese gooseberry to which the noble kiwifruit is whakapapa.

But in contrast with Zespri’s relatively sanguine view, the Chinese notice from the AQSIQ, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, describes Mr and Mrs Neofabraea actinidiae in very unflattering terms as a “rot pathogen” and a “major disease” that could infect other fruit such as apples and persimmons, thus inflicting “serious economic loss”.

It saying the fungus hails from New Zealand and Australia – the targets of Chinese suspicions that we are acting in league with Uncle Sam.

And through it all ministers and Zespri are ruling out any link to the “unsubstantiated” trade threat.  “China throws up these non-tariff barriers all the time” is the tenor of the message emanating from the Beehive. Nothing to see here.

(The full text of Vernon Small’s analysis is worth reading, and reminiscent of the sort of critical journalistic insights that we used to have in abundance in the Fourth Estate, and which could ultimately do great harm to an encumbent government’s reputation.)

On Radio NZ’s Morning Report, on 8 August, Guyon Espiner interviewed our esteemed Dear Leader on China’s blocking of our kiwifruit exports.

Key’s responses to Espiner’s questions were a tribute to the Prime Minister’s media spin-doctors. Throughout the entire four and a half minutes interview, Key stayed on-message, referring to the blocking of Zespri’s export as “a technical issue“.

The phrase “technical issue” was used three times.

Other answers given were verbose – but not very enlightening for the listener;

Espiner: “Did he [Todd McClay] tell the truth about that, though?

Key: “Yeah, he did, but he was-“

Espiner: “You said he was dancing on the head of a pin.”

Key: “He was very specific in the answer that he gave to a very specific question.”

Espiner: “He was misleading, wasn’t he?”

Key: “Well, I just think, in our business the problem is that even though often a journalist will ask me a direct and specific question, you really know they’re  asking a broader question. And it’s kind of tidier if you can at least give a, give them [a] more fulsome answer.”

So according to Key, if “a journalist will ask… a direct and specific question, you really know they’re  asking a broader question“?

This was quintessential Key silly-speak for “Yes, Todd McClay lied”.

The curious aspect to Key’s “spun” answers is that Guyon Espiner – a seasoned journalist of the calibre of Lisa Owen, Kim Hill, Simon Walker, et al – allowed Key to make his specious drivel unchallenged.

At the very least, Espiner should have challenged Key of his references to “technical matters” with the simple question,

“Prime Minister, is the phrase “technical matters” the on-message phrase you’ve been told to use?”

Key would have responded with a resounding “No, of course not!”.

But that would have blown that phrase out of the water from that point on in the interview. The carefully ‘spun’ message crafted by his spin-doctors would have been rendered neutralised, and Key would have had to rely on other answers to Espiner’s probing. Perhaps even something approaching the truth.

The best way to counter “spin” is to clearly identify it as such.


Shades of Bill Birch


In 1991, when former Finance Minister, Bill Birch, was promoting the Employment Contracts Bill to the New Zealand public and media, his constant mantra was that it would “raise real wages”;

” The challenge New Zealand faces in industrial relations is to create an environment that delivers high productivity, high income and high employment.”

The promise of “higher wages” was an attempt to justify  the de-unionised, laissez-faire bargaining aspects of the Employment Contracts Act (later passed into law as an Act of Parliament).

But such was not to be. As economist, Andrew Morrison, reported for the  Parliamentary Library in 1996;

“The content of employment contracts has also changed. There are more flexible work practices, greater multi-skilling and increased use of performance pay. Rates for overtime and penal rates have dropped.


Econometric work shows the ECA as having had no significant effect on the aggregate level of wages. There may have been some deterioration in working conditions, however evidence is not clear-cut.”

Birch’s claims of the ECA “raising wages” were utterly bogus of course.

In reality, the Act increased wages for a few – but either froze or reduced wages for the majority, as Morrison pointed out.

It was the first occassion when this blogger noticed an oft-repeated phrase used by a politician to promote a wildly unpopular piece of legislation. It may have been one of the first (?) uses of ‘spin’ in such a context (as opposed to mis-use of information or outright lies).

In 1991, the “raising wages” mantra was not challenged in any meaningful way (that this blogger can recall).

A quarter of a century later, we still seem to have a problem with political ‘spin’.

The scary thing is, that our elected representatives don’t really seem perturbed that we recognise their ‘spin’ for what it is. In a post-truth environment, it seems to be the “new norm”.

As Andrea Vance wrote in an opinion piece on 1 July;

Politicians are now playing a game in which it’s up to their opponents to fact-check, to catch out their lies. (“People have had enough of experts,” as British Tory leadership hopeful Michael Gove put it.)

They presume media and the voters should accept what they say as fact.

Earlier this week, Trump’s supporter Jeffrey Lord dismissed this “fact-checking business” as an “elitist, media-type thing”.

People only care about “what the candidates say”, he added.

But if what the candidates say are bare-faced lies…then where does that leave us?

Indeed, where does that leave us?

Perhaps needing new standards for political honesty?

We can call them “guidelines“.





Radio NZ: Drug Foundation critical of meth contamination evictions

Housing NZ: HNZ supports new meth standards committee

Radio NZ: English calls for more specific housing meth tests

Radio NZ: Expert questions meth contamination evictions

Radio NZ: NZ braces for effects on Zespri’s halt of kiwifruit exports

Fairfax media: China’s attack on kiwifruit after trade reprisal warning ‘just a coincidence’

Radio NZ: NZ braces for effects on Zespri’s halt of kiwifruit exports

Parliamentary Library: The Employment Contracts Act and its Economic Impact – Andrew Morrison, Economist (November 1996) Labour’s Labour Relations


TV1 News: A post-truth era in politics

TV1 News: Perhaps the Government might want to say sorry

Radio NZ: Is a ‘post-truth’ era upon us?

Radio NZ: Give facts a chance

Previous related blogposts

Military ‘spin-doctoring’ – the media catch-up

The Art of ‘Spin’

Paula Bennett on unemployment: spin baby, spin!

The Dark Art of ‘Spin’ – How It’s Done

The Dark Art of ‘Spin’ – How It’s Done (Part #Rua)

When spin doctors go bad

“Spin me a conspiracy”, said Dear Leader!

“Spin me a brain exchange”, said Dear Leader!

National Party spin on Aaron Gilmore and MMP

National spins BS to undermine Labour’s Capital Gains Tax

Housing Minister Paula Bennett continues National’s spin on rundown State Houses

The Mendacities of Mr English – Fibbing from Finance Minister confirmed




quick it's an emergency - spin doctors


This blogpost was first published on The Daily Blog on 13 August 2016.



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Diversion Strategem #5

18 September 2012 5 comments



How to divert the Television Generation public;

Strategem #1: Blame it on dem filthy lazy benes! (*tick*)

Strategem #2: Stand up to dem lazy, uppity Mow-ries! (*tick*)

Strategem #3: Host an international sporting tournament! (Did that last year.)

Strategem #4: Declare war on someone! (Fiji? Kermadec Islands? A passing iceberg?)

Strategem #5: Invite some Royals to visit! (Clothing optional)


Full pathetic story





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The Dark Art of ‘Spin’ – How It’s Done (Part #Rua)



Continued from:  The Dark Art of ‘Spin’ – How It’s Done

And relevant also: The wheels are coming off, and there’s a funny ‘plink-plink’ sound

And: How Paula Bennett and National are wasting our taxdollars


Make no mistake – National’s scheme to “offer” subsidised contraception is a cunning plan to deflect attention from a raft of bad news that has been in the headlines lately,

Three years of neo-liberal “reforms”;  slashing state services; tax cuts; introducing labour market “flexibilities” – have produced very little gain for this country.

On top of that are the run of scandals afflicting National; Nick Smith and Bronwyn Pullar;  John Banks, Sky City,  and Kim Dotcom; Murray McCully and MFAT; John Key’s secret deals with Sky City…  It is an eye-opening  litany of failure, stuff-ups,  and dodgy dealings.

Cue – the Spin Doctors.


  1. Pick a dog-whistle issue, preferably one loaded with misconceptions, prejudice, and moralising
  2. Choose a vulnerable group in our society who are powerless and easily demonised
  3. Offer a naive, simplistic “solution” to a problem that doesn’t exist – but still pushes people’s emotional buttons
  4. Encourage moral hysteria, before calling for “calm”.


Full Story


There is good reason why National has released this crazy plan at this point in time.

It has nothing to do with assisting beneficiaries in any way, shape, or form.

It has everything to do with deflecting attention from National’s own failures.

If National was truly interested in assisting people with subsidised contreaception – it would offer this choice to everyone.

And along with free contraception, National should be offering free dental care for children; meals in schools; and other programmes to help New Zealanders.

Otherwise, Paula Bennett’s “offer” of subsidised contraception for beneficiaries should be seen for what it really is: Spin Doctors deflecting public attention away from National’s shocking economic performance. It’s pointing a finger and yelling, “Look over there“!

Once upon a time they burned women as witches.



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Paula Bennett on unemployment: spin baby, spin!

9 April 2012 8 comments



All ministers have a coterie of staff. They consist of  PAs, researchers, speech writers, policy analysts, media experts, and… ‘spin doctors’. Actually, any of the previous list can be labelled a “spin doctor”.

“Spin Doctors” take a piece of information and presents it in a certain, carefully constructed way, that makes their respective Minister look good to the public.

Example; National’s recent policy on 16 and 17 year old unemployed youth was “reformed”, announcing that they would be issued “purchase cards”, to eliminate wasting their benefit on cigarettes and alcohol.

End goal: to make National look good in the public eye, by getting “tough on welfare”.

(Except for one thing. It’s already against the law for retailers to sell tobacco and alcohol products to 16 and 17 year olds.  The law is already in place to deal with this issue. And if retailers are selling these products to 16 and 17 year olds, then it’s a RETAIL problem – not a welfare problem.)

But the Spin Doctors quietly ignored that salient fact and simply pushed the message: National is “getting tough on welfare”.

That’s the message being spun and put out to the public to absorb. One simple line.

Anyone who doubts the efficacy of spin doctoring of  such messages should check letters-to-editors and on-line fora to see how many low-information, National-friendly “armchair experts” now repeat that one, simplified Official Line; the government is “getting tough on welfare”.

That’s “spin”.

Today, Bennet’s media people released this apparently positive news into the public arena,




But not before her Spin Doctors got their hands on it first,

More than 5000 people cancelled their unemployment benefits because they found jobs last month.”

It could well be that 5,000 “cancelled their unemployment benefits”.

But as to how she could possibly know that they all “found jobs last month”? How could she possibly know that?

Those 5,000 could easily have been part of the exodus of New Zealanders moving to Australia,


Kiwi exodus to Aussie at new high

11:30 AM Wednesday Mar 21, 2012

New Zealanders continued to abandon their home country for Australia, with the speed of annual departures accelerating to a record 53,000 last month.

New Zealand lost a net 39,100 people to Australia in the 12 months ended February 29, 4,100 of whom left in the month of February alone, Statistics New Zealand said today.

That’s the biggest-ever annual net loss to Australia, as just 13,900 people crossed the Tasman to live in New Zealand, though short of the monthly record of 5,000 in February 2001.

People have been quitting New Zealand for Australia for years as they seek higher wages and a better standard of living across the ditch, and in 2008 the National Party won office campaigning on a promise to stem the outflow. ” – Source


If any one of those 5,000 entered into a relationship or marriage/civil union with a working partner – they are no longer eligible for welfare.

If any of those 5,000 began a part time or seasonal job – they may no longer be eligible for welfare.

If any of those 5,000 went on to ACC; a programme of some description; jail; or died –  they’re no longer eligible for welfare.

Nek bit,

Social Development Minister Paula Bennett says the number of people on that benefit is now at 53,479, which is the lowest March level since 2009.”

When they’re raising welfare as an election issue, National spins the figures high, and quotes all recipients of  state assistance,

More than three quarters of all beneficiaries will be forced to seek work or face cuts to their payments under sweeping recommendations from the Government’s Welfare Working Group…

That would more than double the numbers required to look for work from 133,200 of the 360,000 people presently on a benefit to 277,200. ” – Source

At such times, it suits National’s agenda to “spin” the figures as high as possible and accentuate them in the media.

When it suits their purpose to paint themselves in a good light, they quote low figures, and focus on those. The “spin” is more positive.

Moving along,

Ms Bennett is particularly pleased that 2800 young people who were beneficiaries moved into work last month.”

Let’s give Minister Bennett the benefit of vthe doubt. Let’s assume that every single one of those 2,800 young beneficiaries is now in  paid work. Let’s assume that work is full time, and not a part-time burger-flipper. Let’s assume it’s ‘permanent’ and not seasonal fruit-picking.

What  has the media release not covered?

Answer: it doesn’t state how many young beneficiaries there were to start with. And the figures are tragic,


Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Full Story


Though undated, Duncan Garner’s blog-entry was written during National’s party conference in August last year.

So in one month, 2,800 young people moved into employment. Let’s hope that those jobs are permanent, because at 2,800 young people per month, it will take National just under two years to move all 58,000 into employment. That’s not counting new school leavers, graduates, young people returning to New Zealand, etc.


The National Government has shown real leadership with initiatives for youth employment, including the recently announced Job Ops with Training.”

That’s highly arguable. In fact, National has made a fetish out of leaving job creation to the market. Aside from the cycleway, it has created very few new jobs. Quite the opposite, they’ve thrown 2,500 state sector workers onto the unemployment scrap-heap.
As the media story states,

Overall the number of people on benefits fell by 6698 in March to 322, 951.”

And again, there is no way of telling where those 6,698 ended up.  In employment? Gone overseas? Prison? Shifted on to ACC? Entered new relationship? Died? Kidnapped by aliens?
As a point of interest, New Zealand’s ranking of NEET (Not in Employment, Education or Training) Youth 15-24, is near the OECD average. We are stacked between France and Portugal.
By contrast, our Scandinavian/Nordic cuzzies are all within the top twelve on the ranking list.

Finland is #9.

We are #19.

I think Gerry Brownlee needs new Spin Doctors. Maybe he could borrow Paula Bennett’s?



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It’s a Man’s World, I guess…

3 August 2011 5 comments


Full Story



$20 million spent on advertising the military…

Meanwhile, back in the Real World,



$20 million to advertise the Army – “Must Have” *tick*

$800,000 cut from Women’s Refuges to save lives – “Nice to Have” (But cannot afford.) *cross*

If this isn’t making your stomach turn and a sense of outrage rising up in you, then you have all the emotional capacity of a Dalek.

There is only one word for this, and that word is obscene.