Tolley, Whale Oil, NZ Herald, and Mums on Top
By Kelvin Smythe
Tolley, Whale Oil, NZ Herald, and Mums on Top
The NZ Herald heading (July 21, 2011) read: ‘Kindergartens crying poor – with big cash stashes’.
Was Elizabeth Binning, Herald education reporter, in on it as a willing participant, or was it just ‘lazy’ reporting? There are some grounds for suspecting she was fed information or at least a starter by Anne Tolley’s office – certainly she picked up on a story line from Cameron Slater, an informal government source. But then again, it could just have been lazy reporting, unconsciously aided by not wanting to stray too far from the government line. The outcome, whatever the reason, was an article that began off-balance and stayed there.
Central to the story is a Slater item in which he decided, off his own bat – so he claims – to look up the charities register to check out the bank balances of the various kindergarten associations.
The story starts, though, with the recent early childhood protest: from there, a scenario could be a nod by the minister’s office to Slater about the kindergarten balances; the office alerting Binning to the Slater item; and, in a further Orwellian touch, suggesting a blog operator likely to make a comment supporting cutbacks on kindergarten funding; and then Tolley providing the concluding slur. And, overall, Binning binding the connivance together with a biased heading and text.
Even if some parts of this process did not occur as suggested or are denied, we are still left with the early childhood protest; Slater’s item; Binning picking up on the story from there – though not acknowledging this as the source; the weird choice of the blog operator for comment; Tolley’s slur; and Binning’s overall bias (for whatever reason).
It is widely accepted that Slater is a National Party means for issuing slurs against opponents.
So Slater looked up the bank balances of kindergarten associations did he? Why not other childhood associations? Who put him in the picture to concentrate on just kindergartens?
An intriguing component of the article is a quote from a blog operator, Marilynn McLachlan, providing enthusiastic support for the kindergarten funding cuts. The blog is ‘Mums on Top’. In many respects an admirable site, and she an admirable person, but the question here is how she was identified as someone who would support funding cuts for kindergartens? She is also self-listed social media strategy operative and there is no doubt this has crossed over to the blog she runs which has a substantial commercial imperative. I have no doubt of her sincerity but in the middle-class ‘self-help’ industry in which she functions, sincerity is a commodity. The plot thickens when, on her home page, much is made of a considerable publicity coup she effected in the Sunday Star Times some years ago in writing an open letter to Helen Clark describing the harm being done to families by poverty. She hints that this led to the Working for Families policy.
The question now becomes, what has she had to say about the increasing poverty under a National government? We know, though, what she has had to say about funding cuts for kindergartens.
McLachlan says: ‘A lot of parents would be highly disappointed to learn their kindergartens had big surpluses they could have drawn on – especially as they had been so vocal in their complaints about cuts to funding.’
Wow! ‘Big surpluses’? Now the reserves are surpluses. McLachlan is in the know is she about association cash flow and capital plans and requirements? ‘So vocal’ she says with all the put-down connotations of the expression? Whether prearranged with Tolley or not, she has delivered in spades.
And this was the person who was blazingly vocal about financial demands on the finances of families when Helen Clark was prime minister. There is something very strange going on here.
By the way none of the spokespersons from the associations had any knowledge of Marilynn McLachlan or Mums on Top.
Why of all the groups or individuals Binning might have approached, did she approach McLachlan? Was McLachlan suggested to her? Did she approach for comment other organisations like, say, Poverty Action?
Then Tolley completes the set-up with a slur on kindergartens, one of New Zealand’s most honourable education groupings: ‘The substantial reserves,’ she said, ‘built up through the taxpayer funding and fees from parents would be an eye-opener for many families.’
This is Tolley’s typical game. I don’t think she is really aware how unusual it is for a minster of education to be continually undermining the education of children by undermining parental confidence in teachers.
So there is the possible sequence: the early childhood protest; Tolley’s office pointing out the kindergarten ‘surpluses’ to Slater and Binning; McLachlan being identified as the one to go to for a comment; then Tolley providing the last word. At the very least Slater, Binning, McLachlan, and Tolley as a line-up – yes a kindergarten leader is in there and quoted, but her pitch has already been well and truly queered.
The Herald article in question was headed in marvellously objective fashion: ‘Kindergartens crying poor – with big cash stashes’. Oh well done Elizabeth! Champion.
Did the kindergartens say they were crying poor? Is that how they put it? Or were they saying that if the cuts proceeded the quality of kindergarten education would be affected and kindergarten expansion hindered?
And ‘stashes’? ‘Big’ stashes? Stashes! – a word loaded with connotations of concealment and something unsavoury.
Elizabeth – you had better deliver on this heading.
How do you begin?
‘Kindergartens have increased fees, put playgrounds on hold and made staff redundant because of Government funding cuts – but many have large sums of money in the bank.’
‘A search of the charities register reveals many kindergarten associations have shown surpluses in their annual returns.’
There she (Elizabeth) goes again. The word ‘surplus’ in the context shows bias, ignorance, and incompetence. Roughly defined a surplus is an amount left over after what is needed has been used. By Binning’s resort to the word ‘surplus’, she has effectively undermined any arguments contrary to her article heading, and placed herself in the camp supporting cuts to kindergarten education. Well done, Elizabeth thanks for your contribution.
Were the balances described as surpluses in the charities register? Who was first to use the word? Yes – Slater. Who else used the word? Yes – McLachlan. Now – you.
The weasel passivity of ‘Kindergartens have increased fees’ leaves hanging whether the increasing of fees was widespread or isolated is a further example of biased or lazy reporting. What can I say? All the tricks.
Elizabeth, I am now going to show you what a real reporter does.
Let us imagine an association with say $2 million in reserve (which was about average) and with, say, 25 kindergartens and a home-based service for 1500 children. The auditor would have recommended keeping 90 days’ operating costs. From that funding would come wages for the quarter, professional development, building repairs, and money set aside for new kindergartens. The association would have plans for, say, one new kindergarten at the cost of a round $500,000, and kindergarten extensions at around $300,000. Fees would not have been increased, but parents asked for donations at, say, $2.00 a day, but no children would have been denied access.
To achieve these balances, in precautionary mode, spending on support staff, professional development, playgrounds, and building projects would have been reduced (in other words, the quality of the kindergarten’s education would have been affected). But from next month with $40,000 to be cut from the budget ($15 million from all kindergarten budgets), and given that spending is already pared back, it is obvious that fees will have to be increase
What’s the scandal Elizabeth? Where’s the ‘surplus’? Where’s the ‘stash’? Put it like this: if you wanted your children to go to kindergarten, and you couldn’t get them in, wouldn’t you be pleased your local association had scrimped and saved to be able to provide extra places? What is the next scoop to be suggested by Tolley and Slater, and picked up by you, the ‘surpluses’, the ‘stashes’, set up in school trust accounts? And which pro-government blogger will you get to express shock-horror on behalf of parents? Honestly, being an education reporter is a breeze once you get the hang of it!
Clare Wells, NZ Kindergarten’s chief executive, is given the opportunity to explain (though fairness to the kindergarten case had disappeared in a puff of sulphurous smoke by as soon as the heading):
‘It was important to note’, she says, ‘that [the balances] were for last year, and did not include the funding cuts.’
‘I think we are going to see some very, very different figures in a year,’ she added.
Binning instances Counties Manukau having $3.2 million in reserve. Instead of praising the association for its efforts in a needy part of Auckland she creates a context for casting aspersions at their valiant efforts to build up reserves to provide more kindergarten spaces. Karen Shields from Counties Manukau explains that money for these new centres was being saved by ‘reducing spending on professional development and some building projects, but none of its centres had increased fees because of the funding cuts.’
This funding reserve is not a surplus, or a big cash stash, Elizabeth, but a planned building up of a reserve through self-imposed cutbacks. Such cutbacks would have had some effect on the quality of education in the kindergartens, which is worrying, but was done in the interests of a wider group of children.
The Herald has established and well-informed reporters for business and horses, why not for education?
Binning gets a pass mark in reporting on general education items (like the hungry children series), but in respect to the real and pressing issue of our times, that of the government and a particular group of academics having a vested interest in vilifying teachers, schools, and teacher organisations to undermine confidence in public education to advance the commercialisation of education, she is out of her depth.
You see Elizabeth, every time you get a media release from Tolley’s office or a story starter or a comment, the underlying message is always the same: teachers, public schools, and teacher organisations are self-serving, unprofessional, and hypocritical.
Whether Binning has been drawn into this unedifying episode as an active participant, or a lazy, mildly self-serving reporter, is probably of little moment. It’s the National Party propaganda machine in action again, and there’s Elizabeth Binning, NZ Herald education reporter very much part of it.