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So it seems that since November, the Reserve Bank has been quietly enacting a policy of charging the media for Official Information Act requests.
Such fees are not being levied only in the exceptional circumstances that involve major costs, but as a standard principle. There are so many wrong things about this policy that it’s hard to know where to start. Begin with the fact the OIA Act puts an obligation on the government and its agencies to foster the free flow of public information. In her report on the OIA last year, Chief Ombudsman Beverly Wakem began by citing the Act’s intent:
It established the principle that official information held by government agencies shall be made available to the public unless there is good reason for withholding it. It expressly stated that the purposes for doing this were to:
• progressively increase the availability of official information to enable more effective participation, promote accountability and enhance respect for the law
and promote the good government of New Zealand; and
• protect official information to the extent consistent with the public interest and the preservation of personal privacy.
That looks clearcut. Yet it isn’t. (See below). Though if we’re talking about basic principles here, surely the cost of a response should not be allowed to become a routine hurdle to a disclosure that is the legislation’s declared intent? Add in the fact that no reporter making OIA requests of the Reserve Bank is digging for sensational headlines or chasing the infotainment ratings. (Interest rate movements and/or Reserve Bank chieftain Graeme Wheeler just aren’t that sexy.) So… at a time when quality journalism is under financial strain and spin merchants paid for by taxpayers outnumber journalists, the Reserve Bank has just made it harder for the public to learn whether the RB is making sensible decisions about the economy. No problem here, move along.
Keep in mind that we pay, through our taxes, for the staff salaries and running costs of the Reserve Bank. This includes paying for the press releases – and other media information – that it provides. That hasn’t stopped the Reserve Bank from widening the ambit of an infotax that can only impede the media – and the public – from being fully informed about its operations. As Wakem indicated, a climate already exists where “disclosure” is hardly the default setting :
Over 40% of the current and former government workers who responded to my survey advised that they did not know whether their chief executive or senior managers have a ‘pro-disclosure’ attitude towards the release of information.
How many public servants in Wellington feel they work for an organisation that is led from the top by a policy of “disclosure unless there is good reason not to” rather than by the far more common maxim of “disclosure only if we have to”? The driver here should be the public interest in releasing information, and not the political interest in hiding it. So could someone sane please intervene and tell the Reserve Bank to pull its head in? Unfortunately, no-one is likely to do that, not any time soon.
One reason being, the Wakem report pointed to an avenue of escape for the likes of the Reserve Bank. Under the law, charges can be – and already are being – levied in cases where the gathering of the relevant information involves truly significant costs. In practice, other state agencies, the media and the researchers for political parties have hitherto been exempted. Yet as the Dom-Post article cited above pointed out, Wakem stated that the OIA Act does not endorse “an outright exemption based on the identity of a requester or their role”. Wowzah.
But that, surely, is an argument for amending the Act to do so; or is, at least, an argument for instituting a system of consultation and the possible sharing of costs if and when an OIA response could be shown to cost thousands upon thousands of dollars to compile. It should not be taken as an excuse for the RB to (a) offload some of its ordinary running costs onto the media, and (b) institute a regime that puts extra financial hurdles in front of the normal process of disclosure.
There’s a little thing involved here called “accountability” – and you’d think the likes of the Reserve Bank would see its value, and respect the necessity for its actions to be publicly audited by the media, for the public good, and in circumstances where the RB picks up all of the initial tab, at least. No such luck. As things stand, the RB has just imposed a sweeping financial penalty on the media, for doing its job. Watch other arms of government now try to follow suit.
David Bowie, Part Two. Somewhere in the great beyond, the David Bowie who was reportedly taken aback by the gigantic popular success of “Lets Dance” must be thinking: thanks for the lovely thoughts everyone, but now… its time to get back to work. Celebrity must feel so weird at that level. Many artists seek it, only to recoil when it blows up into a worship that must always feel a bit fraudulent, no matter how sincere the fans’ impulses may be. Every Sunday, even God must feel tired at the prospect of an eternity of praise.
The best expression of the lonely, hunted feeling I’m talking about would be Nina Simone’s finale to her performance at Montreux, Switzerland 40 years ago. Eventually in this clip, she settles into a disturbingly personal rendition of the “Stars” song by Janis Ian, who also knew a thing or two about the costs of celebrity. The clip begins with a shout-out to David Bowie.
And just in case that seems too dark… Here’s Nina S. again, doing the best version of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” ever recorded. After a slow start, she takes the white guy’s hippie poem, pushes out its boundaries and turns the whole thing into an incantation. In the process, Suzanne ceases to be an object of worship, and gets invited to dance.
Alan Rickman (1946-2016) has just died. Damn. But by Grabthar’s Hammer, he shall be avenged!