66 Spin Doctors!

Exclusive: Scott Morrison has 66 spin doctors

So the headline screams.

Bianca Hall is one of the best journalists on asylum and immigration matters in Australia. However this story stinks.

First, exclusive? The information about this comes from a question put to the immigration department in November and answered on the 18th of February this year. See here. This is not an exclusive, whatever that means. It is publicly available information, available for a full two weeks before the story was published. The tag exclusive probably has nothing to do with Bianca Hall but goes to the growing distaste at dressing up routine information.

Moving onto more serious matters, the headline is completely incorrect. Again, this is unlikely the authors domain. Her story leads with “the Immigration Department employs…”, correctly stating where the 66 staff members come from as opposed to the headline which is incorrect. Let me state is clearly: Scott Morrison does not have 66 spin doctors. This doesn’t sound quite so snappy in other circumstances, “MORRISON HAS 900 POLICY WONKS”. Nope, not quite.

Away from editorial decisions and into the article itself, Hall compares the 66 communication staff in the department to the 39 Ministerial communication staff who work for the government. The 66 DIPB staff are public servants, the 39 Ministerial staff are political advisers. There is a strong difference and conflating these people does not add to the reader’s understanding of how the world of politics and the public service operates. This is another tiny example of how the major newspapers, television and radio do not contribute to a more informed knowledge about how Canberra actually works but reaffirm an image far from reality. One Ministerial staffer often has more power than all but the most senior public servants, especially in communications (as opposed to policy and operational areas).

Further, the story conflates Morrison’s refusal to provide information with the staff who work at the Immigration department. These two things are completely separate. The government has made a decision not to provide information on matters. This doesn’t concern any departmental staff.

The counter argument is why are 66 staff members required when the Minister doesn’t release any information? The answer is that these 66 people are not all banging out press releases for the government.

Hall notes that in 2011, the department had 11 ‘spin doctors’. However in 2011 communication unit was substantially larger than 11 people. From what I remember, there were three general areas; Media, Internal and Production. While it is true the media team did a lot of government related communication (press releases, liaison etc) the other two areas worked predominantly on internal matters. They occupied about a quarter of a floor. These are some of the work functions: the production of the annual report, shooting film clips for the department’s youtube channel, proofing internet content and blog posts (much to my chagrin), communication strategy for client interaction and public campaigns etc etc etc.

These people are not sitting around waiting to provide advice to Minister Morrison or members of the media. They are going about pretty standard work involving communication material. It might be filming an infomercial or updating fact sheets.

I am not denying that there is a legitimate debate about what the appropriate number of staff is for communication staff in the public service. But this isn’t the argument being pursued. For my 2 cents on the former, 66 sounds high although I would be wary of any comparison to 2011 given how titles change, staff are reclassified in roles and departmental restructures occur almost biannually. I always thought there were too many people in the communications area however it is easy to understand why a department like Immigration is extremely wary after the past 15 years of policy in this country.

Further, I believe whatever the actual number of staff had been, the response would have been the same. “12 Spin Doctors!”, “27 Spin Doctors!!”. The number doesn’t matter in this narrative.

What we shouldn’t do is reinforce the message that the Immigration department is an agent of innate secrecy. For the entire six years of the ALP governments, the Immigration Department worked for the government and provided a broad level of access for the media in the form of press releases and access to officials. Now the government has changed, protocol has changed. Some may not like this but the pivotal point is the government.

My opinion is that beating up the Immigration Department via nefarious claims of ‘spin doctors’ only adds stink to the ongoing asylum debate.

Again, Hall is an excellent journalist. But this article is completely bogus. There is always more than meets the eye to these stories, and that includes within the newsroom.

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