A little spin goes too far in a pandemic

Pandemics require two things: The efficient administering of effective vaccines, and truth.

I need reassurance that the country is receiving both.

The first is the only way we achieve herd immunity without the need for large funeral pyres. The second is vital to maintain public confidence and faith that the Government will get the job done.

Weeks before New Zealand Herald columnist Matthew Hooton wrote his column last Thursday suggesting the supply of vaccine was running out, I had that niggly journalistic sensation in my scalp that there were things we (the public) were not being told.

We were being assured everything was on track. The rollout was proceeding on (or ahead of) schedule. Regular reassuring bulletins were issued by Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins and Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield – the men who, with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, had carried us through the dark days of Level 4 lockdown.

Yes, there were caveats: Supply was contingent on the international situation and stocks would be lower in June and July but vaccinating was proceeding well for at-risk sections of the public, with a massive upswing in vaccinating the remaining population from July.

Why then, I began asking myself, had I heard nothing about my scheduled vaccination? After all, I’m approaching my mid-70s and have an underlying health condition (a form of lung damage called bronchiectasis). I have since had my first Covid-19 shot, but it was organised by the Covid-concerned management of the village in which I now reside. However, why have acquaintances in their 80s and 90s heard nothing? And how will my 92-year-old live-alone friend receive her automatic text or email booking when she owns neither a computer nor smartphone?

Why, when I interrogated the Byzantine Auckland District Health Board website, did I find only a single vaccination centre for Central Auckland (now two). And why was I reading and hearing a lot about gaps in vaccination programme for border, MIQ and frontline workers but very little about the rollout to Group 3 including everyone over 65?

Why, when the Covid-19 infection statistics had been so easy to follow, was I now seeing only aggregated and largely meaningless vaccination numbers and spasmodic supply of data?

The clear glass through which we witnessed the community infection phase of the pandemic was becoming just a little too opaque for my liking after we moved out of lockdowns.

There were attempts to enlighten. A fortnight ago, Stuff political editor Luke Malpass wrote a commentary suggesting that, although the programme wasn’t going off the rails, the stress and strain was starting to show.

With stress and strain comes spin. Malpass noted that, on the one hand, the Ministry of Health was acknowledging slippage from early to late July in the rollout to the general public, on the other hand, Hipkins was denying this was a delay.

Lefthand/righthand fumbling of the ball was even more evident in the firestorm that accompanied Hooton’s column in the Herald’s business section last week.

He took figures provided by the Prime Minister and her Covid minister and used some simple maths to calculate the supply of vaccine in New Zealand would start to run out this week. His mathematical approach was reasonable and I have no doubt he was acting in good faith. He asked the Beehive and officials to refute his calculations if they were wrong but apparently did not receive a response before NZME decided to put the column on the Herald website.

I have a sneaking suspicion the move to publish online before it appeared in print was designed to smoke out a response. If so, it worked in more ways than NZME might have expected.

Not only did the Beehive produce figures that had not been provided in the PM’s briefing, but other media went on the attack. However, their target was Matthew Hooton and I have some sympathy for him because he thought the Prime Minister would have been supplied with the most up-to-date information.

Both Stuff and Newsroom refuted the claim made in the online column and they were right. However, they were right because there were two sets of numbers floating around. BusinessDesk was more equivocal, noting that supplies would be tight. And for two days following Hooton’s online column the Otago Daily Times led with stories about rationing of vaccine in the south to avoid running out.

The Prime Minister’s figures on which the Hooton column was based did not include a shipment of 100,000 doses that was due to arrive. In addition, the 20,000 doses-a-day figure that had been mentioned and used by Hooton in his calculations was, in fact, the peak number administered and not an average, as had been suggested. In fact, the average number was between 15,000 and 17,000 (depending on where you source the data).

Even if we give the Beehive the benefit of the doubt and say it was blindsided by the unexpected early publication of the column online – and I have issues with that decision – we are left with the unavoidable conclusion that the politicians and Ministry of Health officials  were working from different scripts.

Could it have been a matter of cooks spoiling the broth?

Stuff columnist Andrea Vance, who back in March described the vaccine roll-out as a secretive and sluggish spin-fest, wrote a revealing column in the Sunday Star Times a week ago about the Government’s lack of transparency and burgeoning number of spin doctors. She wasn’t writing about Covid but did say the Health Ministry’s communications gatekeepers “are so allergic to journalists they refuse to take phone calls, responding only (and spasmodically) to emails”.

An army of spin doctors in the ministry and an elite force of them in the Beehive may be responsible for narratives which, if not conflicting, are not perfectly aligned. Either way, information is being manipulated and we would be näive to think otherwise. It’s the way politics and government works.

Nonetheless, it has no place in a pandemic.

When “Can I believe it?” passes the public’s lips in these hazardous times, it’s a signal to reset the strategy.

During the rise in infections and nationwide lockdown, the Government and the health ministry scored exceptionally well on the truth and credibility scale. So, too, did media that went to extraordinary lengths to avoid panicking the public.

In March last year I devoted a Tuesday Commentary to what I termed “adversity journalism” and the need for news organisations to see themselves as part of the national effort to defeat a deadly enemy, not simply as dispassionate observers. I said they continued to have a role in holding power to account, but in ways that contributed to that national effort. I believe that was how media  carried out their roles during that phase of the pandemic.

As a result the public had a high level of trust in what they were being told by politicians, officials and journalists.

That trust is being eroded. In an editorial in the Sunday Star Times yesterday, editor Tracy Watkins summed it up very well.

If you wonder why an American singer on Waiheke Island can get vaccinated when your 80-year-old mother can’t, if it concerns you that no-one seems to know why our vaccination rates are falling so far behind much of the rest of developed world, then that’s why getting the right information matters.

Just as it mattered last year when the Government scolded journalists for making up stories about a shortage of flu vaccines (there was) and a crisis in PPE (there was).

And it’s why this week there was confusion over whether New Zealand was running out of vaccines, as the numbers kept changing (it seems we’re not, yet).

But that’s what happens when you try to make everything a good story, rather than being straight up.

It seems those in power and the people they pay to manage their messages will never learn.

God knows, they have had numerous salutary lessons. Like an episode I recalled in my book Complacent Nation.

In 2002, the Immigration Service told a  New Zealand Herald reporter that they no knowledge of the imprisonment of asylum seeker Ahmed Zaoui. Later that night it became apparent they knew that and more. Quite rightly, we called the service to account in an editorial. A year later we were handed the service’s media log for the day the editorial appeared.

This is what the spokesman had written below a copy of the editorial: “I was let down badly. Everyone had agreed to lie in unison, but all the others caved in and I was the only one left singing the original song.”

The truth has a wonderful habit of revealing itself but, with a deadly virus waiting for an opportunity to thrive, we can’t wait a year to hear it.

Bouquet

To Stuff for the international recognition it received as Best in Asia-Pacific in the INMA Global Media Awards for Tā Mātou Pono, Our Truth – its gutsy investigation of its past monocultural reporting and front page apologies to Māori.

 

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