Karl du Fresne on Bryan Bruce’s latest hit job

On Tuesday night Bryan Bruce released a new documentary.

It hasn’t gone down well, mainly because it destroyed the union narrative that our education isn’t as world-class as they’d like us believe. The luvvies are upset too because normally they’d be singing from the rooftops about his findings. The problem is that Bruce’s narrative has taken away many of the claims from the unions and actually, despite it not being the intent, promoted why it is that charter schools are so popular.

Paid mouthpiece website The Spinoff’s Duncan Grieve had a crack at it, and has been attacked for daring to speak the unspeakable..

Karl du Fresne also has some commentary:

I forced myself to watch the Bryan Bruce documentary about New Zealand education on TV3 last night. Past experience told me not to expect an even-handed assessment of the issues, but the optimist in me hoped that Bruce might offer some insights into where our education system has gone wrong. Faint chance.

If there’s a word that describes Bruce’s broadcasting style, it’s tendentious – in other words, calculated to promote a particular cause.

Viewers might have learned something worthwhile had he approached his subject with an open mind, but no. He clearly started out with a fixed goal in mind. Bruce doesn’t like choice, doesn’t like competition and doesn’t like individualism. He despises Treasury and the disruptive neo-liberal reforms it has championed since the 1980s.

Bryan Bruce hankers for the halcyon days of the 1970s

And he might have some valid points. Trouble is, he destroys his credibility by the way he cherry-picks information and opinions that support his own. He flies around the world (at our expense, incidentally – the doco was funded by New Zealand On Air) interviewing academics whose views he approves of, and then presents those views as if they’re incontrovertible.

Once a trougher always a trougher. Bryan Bruce lives for the succulent teet of NZ on Air funding, like most of his luvvie pals.

In this respect he reminds me a bit of the American documentary maker Michael Moore, who’s similarly selective in the way he marshals and edits his evidence. The difference is that Moore’s sardonic wit, in contrast to Bruce’s earnest lecturing, is at least entertaining.

It doesn’t seem to matter to Bruce, or perhaps hasn’t even occurred to him, that his approach sometimes produces glaring contradictions. Hence he admiringly cites the Chinese education system for producing results that put Chinese pupils at the top of the OECD achievement rankings while New Zealand kids are falling behind. Then, later in the programme, he condemns test-based regimes and “authoritarian” systems. But hang on; the Chinese education system is both highly test-focused (as Bruce acknowledges) and about as authoritarian as it gets. He can’t have it both ways.

Yes he can, he is a socialist and they have the shield of sanctimony and the cloak of hypocrisy to hide behind.

I noticed too that while he professes to deplore authoritarianism and “social control”, he included footage of pupils at Manurewa Intermediate – a school he obviously admires – chanting in compliant unison before a messiah-like principal. It reminded me of a Destiny Church service.

That school is seriously opposed to charter schools because they have one nearly next door and it is becoming more and more popular and the principal at Manurewa Intermediate is the head of the Principal’s union.

Perhaps Bruce is so obsessively focused on proving New Zealand kids are the victims of a heartless neoliberal experiment that he’s prepared to disregard such inconsistencies in the hope that viewers won’t spot them either.

Even setting aside the polemics, the documentary was seriously flawed as a piece of filmmaking; a string of unconnected ideas with little attempt to join up the dots. I’d mark it as a “fail”.

I find his style irritating and tiresome too. The meaningful downward glances, the hand gestures and the solemn lecture-theatre tone (Bruce is a former teacher, and it shows) are clearly intended to convey a sense of moral authority, but it’s a style that hovers on the edge of priggishness.

I’m perfectly prepared to believe there are a lot of things wrong with New Zealand education, and that some may indeed be the result of what Bruce calls neoliberalism. I’d quite like to see a robust, critical examination of the system by someone prepared to approach the subject without predetermined conclusions. But Bruce is not that person, and his much-hyped documentary was really just an opinion column with moving pictures and sound.

There is nothing wrong with the NZ education system that some charter schools can’t fix. The funny thing is the very people who normally support his documentaries are the ones attacking him because he dared to call failure on our much vaunted “world-class” educations system.

In any other year and on any other topic, politicians like Chris Hipkins would be lauding the documentary of Bryan Bruce. Unfortunately in this instance he has spoken against the union wishes. He will be black-listed from this day forth.

It is to be expected with someone who has a first name for his last name though…really.


-Karl du Fresne

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As much at home writing editorials as being the subject of them, Cam has won awards, including the Canon Media Award for his work on the Len Brown/Bevan Chuang story. When he’s not creating the news, he tends to be in it, with protagonists using the courts, media and social media to deliver financial as well as death threats.

They say that news is something that someone, somewhere, wants kept quiet. Cam Slater doesn’t do quiet and, as a result, he is a polarising, controversial but highly effective journalist who takes no prisoners.

He is fearless in his pursuit of a story.

Love him or loathe him, you can’t ignore him.

To read Cam’s previous articles click on his name in blue.