Lies, damned lies and public relations – or –
how to spin throwing out 600,000+ National Library books
“All governments lie” was the motto of renowned journalist I.F.Stone, who devoted a good part of his long career to catching the American government at it. He did so without the aid of the US Freedom of Information Act, which did not come into effect until 1967, just four years before Stone stopped publishing I.F. Stone’s Weekly, which he founded in 1953.
The New Zealand equivalent act, the Official Information Act, was not passed until 1982. The first purpose of that Act is “… to increase progressively the availability of official information to the people of New Zealand in order to enable their more effective participation in the making and administration of laws and policies; and to promote the accountability of Ministers of the Crown and officials, and thereby to enhance respect for the law and to promote the good government of New Zealand …”
So far so good. But what can we actually learn by using it? Not so much these days is the conclusion of journalists who have been using it to do their jobs for the past ten years or more.
On 6 June 2021 Stuff senior political reporter Andrea Vance, in her article This Government promised to be open and transparent, but it is an artfully-crafted mirage, stated “This year, I have made more complaints to the Ombudsman than in any previous year. So far, every one has been upheld.” Vance provides details of requests she has made and the non-compliance with the Act which officials then engaged in. Her experience is shared by other journalists (see Government ignores plea to outlaw ministerial interference in OIA responses by Nikki Macdonald). It has got so bad that Stuff started a Redacted series of articles two years ago to document the problems that journalists, academic researchers (see Urgent call to improve access to official information – Māori researchers) civil society organisations, and private individuals (see Two words and an emoji: What caused six months of bureaucratic stonewalling) are currently experiencing when it comes to getting timely and accurate information from government sources.
What is the cause of this trouble? There seem to be multiple causes, ranging from poor training of officials in their OIA responsibilities and practices through to ministerial interference to prevent the release of information. But perhaps it has got so much worse lately because the government has been prioritising hiring public relations personnel to manage ‘communications’, as opposed to people trained as civil servants to provide accurate information and assist the public and the media in finding out what they need to know.
In Vance’s article she notes that: “In the year Labour took office, the Ministry for the Environment had 10 PR staff. It now has 18. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Trade more than doubled its staff – up to 25. MBIE [Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment] blew out from 48 staff to 64. None of those five dozen specialists could give me those figures for many weeks – and again I was forced to ask the Ombudsman to intervene. The super ministry [MBIE] – and its colleagues uptown at the Health Ministry – are notorious for stymieing even the simplest requests. Health’s information gatekeepers are so allergic to journalists they refuse to take phone calls, responding only (and sporadically) to emails.”
In their 2021 documentary for Prime TV, A Living Hell: Apartment Disasters HOBANZ (Home Owners and Buyers Association) directors John Gray and Roger Levie discuss their (failed) attempts at working through MBIE’s multiple ‘Engagement and Communications’ teams to get someone from MBIE to front for their documentary and explain what the ministry is doing to stop unsafe apartment buildings from (still) being erected, and to get those which are (still) dangerous fixed by those responsible for the shoddy work. Gray says (33:50) “It doesn’t feel right for a government department to be putting up such a big wall.” Levie responds (34:20) “I do get the feeling that they see us as the enemy rather than getting the opportunity to work with us to work out ways to resolve some of these issues.”
Book Guardians Aotearoa (BGA) knows that feeling. We’re ‘just’ trying to save the public’s books, rather than the lives and money HOBANZ is trying to save, but we have experienced the government officials run-around malarkey in all its aspects too. This includes requests for information being refused, or returned with questions and suggestions for cutting them down, or being told they can not be responded to within the legal time limit, or being given heavily redacted documents.
But if there is anything worse than not being told the whole truth by people employed with public money to serve the public, it is being actively lied to on the public’s dime. How this happened with the National Library’s books is documented in the information which BGA (eventually) obtained through OIA requests. It is a case study in how the public are being actively misled by well-paid public servants and their contractors.
Anatomy of the book disposal spinning
1 The set-up
The email trail of the plan to whitewash the unconscionable decision to remove over 600,000 books from the National Library, which was made in December 2018 by then Minister of Internal Affairs Tracey Martin, on the advice of then National Librarian Bill Macnaught, begins on 11 November 2019.
It starts with the Senior Communications Advisor (SCA) of the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) telling her (BGA is pretty sure it’s a she, although the name is always redacted) friend (?) or close acquaintance at the public relations company Double Denim (DD) that “One concept I wanted to get down (that my colleague and I thought of) before it got lost on a scrap of paper is: Not exactly in these words “What do NZers do with books?” Then follow up with a montage of people reading in odd places, books holding up cots, [Redacted], bookcases made out of books, weird and wonderful book art etc. – taking that kiwi passion for books and reading and combining this with that kiwi ingenuity.” This is followed by a colour photo of a lot of lamps with pleated paper shades. DD responds enthusiastically two hours later with “Anna and I have already started thinking about the books idea, pleased to know that it doesn’t have to be reading related! Fingers crossed it gets signed off.”
SCA and DD (like all good employees and sub-contractors of the State?) are clearly not the least bit interested in or concerned about the ethics of the job they are being asked to do, but are wholly focused on delivering the outcomes their superiors desire. No matter what it takes to do so, as subsequent emails reveal.
SCA’s next email to DD comes on 27.11.19, and says “We are seeking an urgent quote for a campaign we’re looking to run close to the 18 December 2019. The National Library of New Zealand are looking to find new homes for a portion of their overseas published books – this collection no longer meets our Collections Policy which was updated with extensive consultation in 2015. We are now focussing on growing our New Zealand and Pacific collections – collecting our stories and memories because no one else in the world is going to do that for us. We would like to make every effort to rehome a portion of this collection and give these books away rather than pulped. We’re wanting to reach New Zealander’s [sic] who love to read – we know from research despite the falling literacy rates New Zealanders are still passionate about reading. This campaign would need to be clever and tap into our kiwi [sic] sensibilities and pride. We’re open to the idea of taking donations to raise money for literacy or simply giving these books away for free.”
DD responded on the same day, saying “There is an opportunity to think in creative ways about how these books might be rehomed … We understand the sensitivities around a library rehoming books and the optics of this from a media perspective. Our aim with this campaign will be to engage the public using both offline and online activations that celebrates the roles books play in our lives. We will think beyond reading, and explore alternative uses for books, e.g sculpture, art, building materials, – one idea we have had (at a very high level) is to build a tiny home made of the books and explore the possibility of using it as a mobile library.”
The email exchanges from then until 2 December relate mainly to the details of the contract. Asking for a quote turned out to be rather misleading as DD is told that the money DIA is prepared to spend on this campaign is $20,000 – take it or leave it. On 3 December SCA tells DD that there is a scope change, which is that “Bill [the National Librarian] is keen to pursue his contact with Rotary and is trying to set up a meeting with them this week. It is his hope we can run our campaign with them and they’ll take the lot. Best case scenario Rotary partner with the National Library and take a large amount of the OPC for their book fairs. We run our campaign along these lines and use Rotary book fairs as the door where the public can access this quirky collection. The funds raised from these book fairs would at least in part go to fund literacy initiatives to help grow our nation of readers.”
On 4 December (the day the contract was signed) SCA informs DD of points raised by the Director of Literacy and Learning at the National Library that “we’ll need to take into account when developing our key messages.” These include a recent article by acclaimed New Zealand writer Lloyd Jones: Bit by bit, New Zealand book culture is being dismantled, and the latest PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results about declining enjoyment of reading and falling literacy as reported in New Zealand top-end in OECD’s latest PISA report but drop in achievements ‘worrying’ (This report showed that “Attitudes to reading behaviours have drastically deteriorated. Students are more likely to say reading is “a waste of time” than they have in past PISA reports, 15-year-olds were less likely to read for enjoyment and 52 per cent of pupils said they “only read if they have to”.” This was a big difference from previous reports, with New Zealand being 20 points lower in reading performance than it was in 2000 when the first survey was done.)
Other points of fact raised by the Director of Literacy and Learning, and relayed by SCA to DD included avoiding suggesting that reading books on line is an acceptable alternative to reading real books. The National Library’s Services to Schools is “… trying to put printed books into the hands of children because they have particular value in regards to getting kids to read. Research shows that print books have way more impact than online. There is an enormous growth in books online but reading hard copies of books is much more preferable to reading online – research shows this. This collection is mostly non-fiction and a lot of these can be found online but the thing we need to keep away from is any implication that because you can get published content on the internet that could replace the need for print in terms of supporting reading for enjoyment. Refer to latest research in PISA results.”
Since the case for replacing books with screens can not be made, SCA advises DD that “Storage angle is preferable – storage is not infinite, we are always looking to grow and strengthen our NZ and Pacific collecting and specialist areas which includes children’s literature. We need to get rid of our low value books so that we can do this and the OPC are low value.” SCA continues “We need to be authentic – what can we hand on heart can say “why we are doing this?” we need to be as upfront and as honest as possible as to why.” This includes not spreading the misinformation that “The OPC was a collection of targeted interest books that were sent to NZ because there was a gap not being met by the NZ public libraries. – this isn’t the case – NL ordered these books. For years this was ongoing acquisition – this message needs to be more accurate.”
The Director of Content Services at the National Library, Rachel Esson, clearly did not get this message, let alone the general need for honesty, as this is what she said to Breakfast TV reporter Jacob Johnson on 12 March 2020 – “… we support other libraries around New Zealand. And when we bought these books we were supporting those libraries because they couldn’t afford to buy these quite obscure books. But that was a long time ago, and the libraries aren’t using them now, so they have told us that they don’t need support in this way.” It is not true that the National Library’s books were acquired to support other libraries, and nor is is true that these libraries told the National Library that they did not need this non-existent ‘service’ any more. On the contrary, after the National Librarian had received ministerial assent to his plan to get rid of over 90% of the Overseas Published Collections, other libraries were notified and given a time frame within which to put in their requests for any books due to go out which they might wish to acquire.
2 The plan
With the contract signed, SCA and DD then beavered away at creating the messages, and the mediums by which they would be delivered. DD put together a media plan, listing which media outlets they wanted to play ball, and when. This plan targeted senior and reputable broadcasters (John Campbell of TVNZ, Lynn Freeman of RNZ) and programmes (Nine to Noon), major newspapers (the Dominion Post, the NZ Herald, the Otago Daily Times) and magazines (The Listener, North and South). On-line publications (e-tangata and The Spinoff) were also part of the plan, as was Maori TV.
Reviewer and writer David Larsen (described in the Media Plan as ‘The Spinoff Books’) was one of three media representatives. He was already working on a story on the subject for The Spinoff, which was his initiative. DD knew he was doing it after being told by the National Library management about his OIA requests for more information. Hence in the Media Plan he (and e-tangata and Lynn Freeman of RNZ) were to be offered a special invitation to take a private media tour of the National Library’s storage facilities in Wellington on Tuesday December 17. On this tour, library management were to explain why they were disposing of these books to make room for what they claimed were new and different books seeking a home. By December 19 (no pressure!) Larsen’s article repeating this line was supposed to be published by The Spinoff. Plus on December 20 “Claire Mabey, the Verb Festival, [or] Steve Tana-Davis” were supposed to have provided a “Reponse to David’s piece as back-up” on The Spinoff.
What actually happened is covered below in ‘The performance’, but before then there was a lot of work to be done, and some more interesting exchanges. Crafting a media release for December 18 which ticked all the boxes and then had to be approved by Louise [SCA’s boss] was the first task. SCA thought that Louise would want an answer to what would happen to all the books which didn’t go to Rotary or other takers – the so-called ‘third phase’ of the disposal. She told DD “Yes, that third phase will need to be built in definitely as it’s highly unlikely they’ll all go in the first two phases…..we can say we’re looking at opening the doors to our Whanganui facility in March, we’re looking into offering job lots and after we’ve exhausted all those options we’re open to people using these books for things other than reading but that will be a last resort.”
Then it was on to planning DD’s main creation, which was a 1.09 minute video featuring Auckland-based youth worker and spoken word poet Stevie Tana-Davis and National Librarian Bill Macnaught in the basement of the library, among all the allegedly unwanted books. This video – National Library makes more room for New Zealand and Pacific stories – is still up on the National Library’s youtube channel, where it has received 644 views. The line taken in this video and in subsequent messaging is the one first raised by SCA in November “We are now focussing on growing our New Zealand and Pacific collections – collecting our stories and memories because no one else in the world is going to do that for us.”
Now who but a non-woke racist living under a rock could be against that? What sort of nitpicker would ask whether the figure of needing to make room for an alleged 90,000 New Zealand and Pacific items per year can be correct? Or mention that the British Library, the Library of Congress, the National Library of Australia, the Cornell University library and other foreign libraries all have magnificent collections of Maori and Pacific materials from which scholars and writers based in these places can easily produce substantial theses and books? The sort of non-racist nitpicker who uses the National Library collections to research and write books, is who. BGA wishes that there were even five thousand books produced by New Zealand and Pacific writers, and/or on New Zealand and Pacific topics, published in New Zealand every year. But we have scoured the publishers’ lists and sadly there are nowhere near 9,000 books a year, let alone 90,000. (In 2019 New Zealand publishers issued 2662 new books, accounting for 23% of all domestic sales. That figure was up +11% on 2018.) The word ‘items’ used by library management is clearly a weasel word, which could refer to posters, leaflets, photos, Facebook posts, recordings and anything else which does not require much if any writing to produce and reading to use. (Or the same amount of storage space as books.)
The emails (and the subsequent publicity generated) place a heavy emphasis on getting coverage of the disposal by Maori media. BGA can only assume this means they think that Maori media will uncritically accept the line that the space is needed for growing Maori and Pacific collections, and not needed for non-Maori or Pacific books which (it is implied) are of no interest or use to Maori. The first assumption (that clearing out space will result in new items appearing to fill it) is of course a ridiculously vacuous one. If life worked that way and one threw out everything in the pantry on the basis that new and different foods would somehow appear to fill it again, one would starve.
The second assumption is patronising in the extreme to scholars, writers, researchers and students of Maori descent, most of whom definitely have been using and want to use books on the same range of subjects as non-Maori, including those published outside New Zealand. (Read ‘English has broken my heart’ by Alice Te Punga Somerville for how this works.)
18 December 2019 was the big day for the spin doctors – the media release went out, the video was put on line – and people were too busy with their holiday plans and end of year events to ask critical questions. Then came the summer holidays and a global pandemic, when items like ‘TVNZ Breakfast visits the National Library’ appeared and uncritically repeated the DIA/DD messages. How effective was this?
3 The performance
It is usual for PR companies to provide reports on their publicity campaigns for clients, so that the client can see what was spent where, and (ideally) how many people it reached, or how big a splash it made. BGA hasn’t put in an OIA request for DD’s report to DIA – if it exists. The contract still had two months to run when Covid-19 meant that a number of items in the plan were never actioned. The magazines targeted (referred to in the Media Plan as ‘Long Lead Pitching’) never got a chance to show if they were amenable to PR manipulation or not. By February 2020 Covid-19 was dominating the news agenda, and by April 2020 Bauer Media had pulled the plug on The Listener and North and South magazines and they ceased publication. Air New Zealand’s planes were grounded in March 2020, so there was no demand for its Kia Ora magazine, which Double Denim was planning to reach through a ‘sponsorship arrangement’.
As the Scots bard once said “The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley, and leave us nought but grief and pain for promised joy.” One thing that seems to have gone badly agley, from the DIA perspective, is that the writer David Larsen smelled a very large and pongy rodent, and in the article which he eventually wrote, published by The Spinoff on 20 January 2020 (The National Library cull of 600,000 books could be a disaster for researchers) he asked: “Why is this being done so quietly? Why is it being done so quickly? The library asserts that these are books we no longer want, need, or can afford to house. But it hasn’t actually asked most of the people who might want continued access to them, and for most of the last year it’s kept very quiet about the process. (The library did put out one press release, a week before Christmas. [18 December 2019] I had put in an Official Information Act request for all advice to the minister on this subject, which they were required by law to send me on the same day they issued their press release, but I expect that was just coincidence).”
Unfortunately, some of the other media people targeted by DD were more gullible, or less rigorous in their research. Some of them gave National Library management a platform for their views, with no critical questioning. The Spinoff published a response to Larsen on 4 February 2020, which was a somewhat incoherent defence of ‘weeding’ books * by a junior university librarian. (If she has a garden, there must be nothing in it but scorched earth, if she imagines that getting rid of over 600,000 items in one fell swoop constitutes ‘weeding’.)
The books editor at Newsroom, Steve Braunias, did not buy the DIA line. Newsroom provided a platform for informed critics of the book cull during 2020. They included Ph.D. student Michael Moore-Jones (What’s really at stake in book-culling decision, February 2020), Victoria University associate professor in History, Dolores Janiewski (Lest we forget the power of knowledge, June 2020) and a poem – On the vandals at the National Library – by poet and English professor Harry Ricketts. Braunias himself wrote several articles, starting with Wanted: a politician with the guts to halt a cultural scandal.
The plan to dispose of a large number of books to other libraries has so far been a flop, with fewer than 5000 taken so far. Nor do some of these libraries (e.g. in prisons) provide public access to what were once the public’s books. The proposed book sales to be run by Rotary, Lions and other charitable organisations also didn’t happen when or as planned. The only one to actually occur (in Trentham in November 2020) was a shambles. As Chris Bourke described it for Newsroom (Special report: flogging the family silver for $2) “The problem of “rehoming” was solved by shifting them to a neighbour’s garage; by “weeding” using Roundup.” No funds were raised for literacy charities, and books which were requested by historians, graduate students and others to be saved for them went to the book sale and have never been seen again.
Also gone for good by November 2020 were Minister Tracey Martin (voted out with the rest of New Zealand First) and Double Denim, which closed down due to the difficulties of finding and doing work on-line during the Covid-19 lockdowns. By the time the new minister (Jan Tinetti) took up the role, and was briefed by her new department, there was some hope among those who care about a National Library which values and protects books and makes them accessible to all those who want to use them, that this minister would be less susceptible to nonsense about ‘re-homing’ and ‘making room for Maori and Pacific items’ and the like. Alas, no.
What is happening now? BGA doesn’t know. Time to put in more OIA requests and spend hours and hours we don’t have reading through them to find out how so-called ‘public’ servants actually carry on their mendacious business with regard to the public’s property and the public interest? No – doing it once is enough. We’ve made our point. If the Commander-in-Chief says “Charge!” the troops obey, no matter that it is in the wrong direction and for the wrong cause. “Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do…” but not to die. That fate is reserved for the books, and their contribution towards the creation of new knowledge that all New Zealanders need, and could use to grow and enhance the “cultural and economic life of New Zealand”, as per the purpose of the National Library Act, 2003. But you try telling the government that…
* Especially incoherent and puzzling is this bit: “American director John Waters put it bluntly: “If you go home with somebody, and they don’t have books, don’t fuck ’em!” Maybe we can blame Fahrenheit 451, or maybe it’s just #toosoon after the ancient Library of Alexandria burnt. Whatever it is, we all understand how George feels here.” Who is George? There are no Georges referenced anywhere else in the article. If the author can’t get the name just one sentence away right, what else is she getting wrong?