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Ministry of Information: Govt's new Burns Unit

Ministry of Information
Keith Rankin

The new Government Communications Unit - dubbed the Burns Unit after its director Brendon Burns - has been compared with Goebbels' Ministry of Propaganda in Hitler's Third Reich, and (by Winston Peters) with the former Soviet official mouthpiece Tass.

Yet the more interesting comparison is with Winston Churchill's Ministry of Information in World War II Britain.

Firstly, the wartime British Minister of Information was Churchill's close confidant, Irishman Brendan Bracken. The British wartime "information" unit kept a close watch over the BBC, with whom author George Orwell was employed during the war. It was Orwell's experiences at this time that laid the foundation for his most famous novel, 1984. (Plus his wife's experiences at the wartime Ministry of Food.)

Brendan Bracken was an enthusiastic supporter of Basic English, an academic fad which appeared in 1984 as NewSpeak. In fact, Orwell's Ministry of Truth was Bracken's Ministry of Information. And, if it's not now obvious, Brendan Bracken (known as BB) was the template for Orwell's "Big Brother".

1984, completed in 1948 was not a book about the future. It was a biting social commentary about contemporary Britain, and critique of the utopian (dystopian for Orwell) views of some of the important intellectuals and officials who were around at that time.

(We might note that Bertrand Russell - the elderly philosopher and anti-nuclear campaigner of the 1950s - in the late 1940s advocated a pre-emptive nuclear strike by the United States on the Soviet Union. The posturings of Dubbya and Saddam today are small fry compared to the possibilities being seriously discussed in and around 1948. Another central theme in 1984 was the ease in which one superpower could suddenly redesignate an ally as an enemy.)

Anyway, back to New Zealand. I am sure it's just one of those bizarre coincidences that pepper history, that our own equivalent organisation to that of Brendan Bracken should be headed by someone called Brendon Burns. Weird!

The relationship between Bracken and Churchill seems to have been somewhat like that between Heather Simpson and Helen Clark. Indeed if Ms Simpson had been appointed to the job given to Burns, there might have been even more adverse comment. Bracken, like Simpson, was very much a "behind-the-scenes" sort of person. So I guess a 2000s' New Zealand equivalent of Orwell's novel might feature a Huge Sister rather than a Big Brother. ('Big'/'Huge' here of course mean influential rather than obese. I remember Bracken's portrayal in a TV drama series about Churchill. Bracken was not a physically big man.)

I am not sure what kind of information Burns will be dealing with right now. But here's a suggestion: improvement of New Zealanders knowledge of our geography and history.

Recently, a quiz about New Zealand geography, set by University of Otago researchers, was given some publicity because it appeared to show that New Zealand children have poor knowledge about our country and its place in the world.

The scores of the children who sat the quiz were no worse than any reasonable observer would have expected. What amazed me the most was that two of the twenty solutions given were incorrect. And that one of those questions which the questioners did not know the answer to was what should have been a basic question for all New Zealanders; how our country got its name.

Actually, the details are a bit murky. Nevertheless we do know that an employee of the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Öostindische Compagnie; the VOC), Abel Tasman (in 1642), did not name these islands "Nieuw Zeeland" as was assumed by the quizmasters. He named us "Staten Landt", believing it may have been connected to another Staten Landt south of South America. In 1643 the other Staten Landt was proved to be just a small island. So the cartographic unit of the VOC renamed us Nova Zelandia (Latin being the international language of that time.)

Why New Zealand (to use the anglicised form)? Because Australia, "discovered" by an earlier VOC employee (Willem Janszoon in 1606) and named New Guinea had by 1643 come to be known as New Holland. In that context, there was only one logical name for us, New Zealand.

Which brings us to the second mistake made in the solutions to the geography quiz. That solution says that Zeeland was a part of Holland. Now such a statement would be as upsetting to a Nertherlander as an American saying New Zealand was a part of Australia (or an Australian claiming that Otago was a part of Auckland) would be upsetting to us.

Holland and Zeeland were the two maritime provinces of the six Netherlands' provinces. (Abel Tasman came from neither.) Holland is significantly bigger than Zeeland. The directors of the VOC all came from Holland and Zeeland. So what could be more natural to the Dutch than calling the large large southern land New Holland and the small large southern land New Zeeland?

We might note that, at the time New Zealand was named New Zealand, it was not known that New Zealand was smaller than Australia. The VOC - ever secretive, ever influential, like Brendan Bracken - could have simply reversed the names in a new edition of their world map, had New Zealand been shown to be larger than Austalia.

In fact there was a sideways shuffle. A piece of land which turned out to be a part of New Guinea had been called New Zealand when Australia was still known as New Guinea. It's just as well that all the names were changed. Otherwise our country might have suffered the same fate as Palmerston North. We might have been stuck with the name New Zealand South!

New Zealand may or may not be an appropriate name for New Zealand in the third millennium. We could have dropped New Zealand at about the same time Australia dropped New Holland. But New Zealand remains what we are. I think that we have a right to be taught about the origins of our nation's name; a name that even New Zealand geographers cannot adequately explain.

This and a few other basic history lessons might be useful pieces of non-political communication from Big Brother; whoops from the Government Communications Unit.


  The third degree from Burns: NZ Herald 14 September 2002
  Quiz gives lots of food for thought: NZ Herald 14 September 2002
  A Note on the Two ‘New Zealands’
  The First Europeans in Australia: 1606


© 2002 Keith Rankin

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