Transparency with the media?

We need to ensure we continue to get it as citizens

Thirty years ago I was a radio journalist. I wasn't great at it; competent, but no award winner. I enjoyed being a broadcaster more and the whole process of making radio. But the shortness of the news cycle, the brevity of radio stories and the limited opportunities to dig into issues and stories and explore them in depth were not very satisfying. I lasted five years before going into government PR as a Ministerial press secretary, which was new and interesting and paid more than journalism.

As a press secretary, you spend a lot of time dealing with reporters. Relationships with the press gallery and reporters who cover your minister's portfolios are very important for getting the minister's views into the news. At the time, most of us were ex-journos who took a fairly objective approach to what we were doing, and there weren't many of what you could call political appointees or party people. Communications graduates were non-existent in Parliament.

That's changed since, especially for the senior ministers or those in the more politically sensitive portfolios, and in the smaller parties, but that isn't the point of this post.

I've always believed that strong and independent news media are a cornerstone of a democratic society. I know the concept isn't perfect and media can have an editorial position on issues, which they are perfectly entitled to. The idea of pure journalistic objectivity has been exposed over many years as an ideal that few of us could achieve, even if we aspired to. But, at least as journalists we could honestly report people's view and actions. We didn't make things up, or report opinions as fact, and if we got it wrong, we tried to put it right. There was no place for our opinions in a story. However, we could still bring our values to the job in the stories we chose to cover and the angles we took.

The people and organisations we reported on would try to influence our reporting so it was favourable to them and to minimise any negative coverage, if that's what was coming their way. That's understandable and a natural reaction to criticism. And they often paid PR people to help do that for them.

However, the relationship between media and organisations has changed in recent decades. I can only speak for public sector organisations because that's where I've spent most of my career. I saw it starting to happen in the 2000s as email became ubiquitous, the use of the Official Information Act became more widespread, and organisations adopted a more defensive stance towards the media.

There was a time when a reporter could ring you and ask you their questions, and you would answer them to the best of your ability, or get the answers if you needed to do some research. I've been in the position of the spokesperson for organisations on some fairly tricky and sensitive issues. Conversations with journalists were an important part of informing and influencing them while keeping communication channels open.

This required managers, particularly the chief executive, to have a high degree of trust in the spokesperson. I've been given a lot of freedom when I was trusted, and no freedom when I wasn't trusted. (Trust is a tricky issue and probably deserves a blog to itself.)

Nowadays, it is very rare for a media adviser to talk directly to reporters. The common practice is to ask them to email the questions to the organisation. In fact, most reporters are so well trained by the organisations they report on that they email questions as a standard practice. If they can't answer it themselves, the media adviser sends the questions to a subject matter expert in the organisation. The answers get edited by the communications team to remove anything risky that could be inferred as a criticism of the organisation, or misinterpreted by the reporter, and then it's sent to a senior manager to approve. This is a mixed blessing. Some of them are very good at making sure questions are answered and will challenge the proposed response if they think it is inadequate, while others are very risk-averse and edit them to a state of blandness. Then they're sent to the reporter.

If the query is a bit complicated and time consuming, we can declare that it is an Official Information Act request and put it into that process. In practice, that often means it can be three to four weeks before the reporter gets their answers, depending on how busy the OIA team is and how big their backlog is. This is also a convenient way of delaying a story, particularly if the minister's office insists on seeing them all before they go out, which many of them do, even for routine departmental OIAs.

However, this can mean reporters wait weeks to get data and statistics that might take an analyst an hour to extract from the database and check they are correct.

Some of these processes are necessary for administrative efficiency. Media teams can be much busier these days than they were years ago, and advisers don't have time to spend long on each query. There are many media outlets and you can even get requests from several reporters from different arms of the same organisation who are doing their own stories on an issue. The print or broadcast journalist is doing their story, and the online reporter is doing another one — each asking different questions.

It's one thing for private organisations and companies to avoid answering questions, but the public service is a different matter. We ought to be accountable to the public, and honestly answering questions the media ask is an important way of doing that. Evasion and dissembling should have no place in government media relations. We need to give them the information they ask for as quickly as possible, and not be so risk-averse or concerned about the reaction from the minister's office when there is a negative story. Sometimes we deserve to get blasted in the media and we should front up and take it. It's called accountability, and as public servants, we need to make sure we're providing as much of it as we deserve as citizens.

You'll only receive email when they publish something new.

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