I’m going to say something good about the Irish media here, so note the time and date because it doesn’t happen often.
Insofar as the media has a propensity to become a participant in political affairs here, as opposed to simply reporting and commentating on them, recent developments around the government’s Strategic Communications Unit (SCU) give cause for even more concern than usual. But it also has to be said that the assiduous work in exposing the manipulation of media for political advantage by some journalists warrants acknowledgment and gratitude from those of us who worry constantly about the state of media in Ireland. In particular, the work of Hugh O’Connell in, and of, the Sunday Business Post has been really important for the democratic process in recent weeks. Others such as the Sunday Time’s Justine McCarthy also deserve special mention.
Before looking at the SDU and how your taxes are being used by the Taoiseach and Fine Gael to advance the cause of the Taoiseach and Fine Gael, it is important to look at this issue in a wider context.
Listening to the leader of Fianna Fail in the past week one could be mistaken for believing that the use of the media by those running the country to further their own ends began last summer, and that he and his party had no ‘form’ in this regard. But we know otherwise. A TV3 documentary ‘Print And Be Damned’ aired in 2013 and in it Anne Harris, formerly of the Sunday Independent, shed light on the disgraceful run up to the 2007 general election. The events are also set out in an article by the Examiner’s Michael Clifford aptly headed ‘Bertie And The Sindo : An Affront To Democracy’, and they provide an invaluable insight into the shocking and sordid behaviour of then Taoiseach, and head of Fianna Fail, Bertie Ahern.
At the time Ahern was up to his neck trying to explain wads of cash up his chimney, massive wins on the horses, why a sitting Taoiseach didn’t have a bank account, and much else about his personal and party finances at the Mahon Tribunal. Then one day he bumped into the Sunday Independent Editor Aengus Fanning in the Shelbourne Hotel. It was April 2007, and after 5 years of government and personal scandal Ahern was running out of time, and rope. There was much interest and speculation about exactly when the election would be but rather than just ask, Fanning took a less direct route with the sitting Taoiseach. He advised Ahern that the Sunday Independent had a massive file on matters pertaining to Ahern and the Tribunal and that it was ‘explosive stuff’. Would the Taoiseach happen to have any stories that he might supply the SINDO with? They’d be particularly interested in the election date?
Ahern didn’t respond directly but a few weeks later, on a Saturday – print day for Sunday papers – he called the paper with some news. He was going to dissolve the government and trigger an election, he would be going to Aras an Uachtarain the following morning, but not ‘until after you’re off the press with the first edition’. By this means the dissolution of the 29th Dáil was announced, unusually, on a Sunday, and it is said even many of Ahern’s cabinet colleagues didn’t know about it before the SINDO announced it. Harris also confirmed that, thereafter, Ahern gave many stories exclusively to the Sunday Independent, something that became obvious to readers over time.
In that election Fianna Fail managed to return to office thanks to a Green Party coalition. They did so despite the impending and unprecedented financial catastrophe that they had sown in previous years, and the frankly embarrassing revelations about the financial dealings of the Taoiseach that dominated the early part of the election campaign. No matter. Ahern was elected Taoiseach for a third time, much to the approval of the Sunday Independent.
Micheal Martin was a cabinet member (Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment) when this happened and I wondered again last week, did he as a Minister know the extent to which his party leader was manipulating the media for party advantage, or did he read about it over his cornflakes in the Sunday Independent?
So what has changed under Fine Gael? Well we have a first-time Taoiseach, shiny and new and full of vim. I’m sure he has a bank account, I doubt he puts cash up a chimney, and if he has ever darkened a bookie’s I’d be a tad surprised. But he sure as hell seems to share Fianna Fail’s penchant for using the media for the advancement of himself, and his party. And in his case he is doing it by spending literally millions of Euro of taxpayer’s money telling those very taxpayers how great they all are.
We are being propagandised by government at our own expense.
The SDU was one of Leo Varadkar’s first initiatives on becoming Taoiseach, headed by PR guru John Concannon. The unit has 14 staff and an annual budget of €5m. From the outset, a suspicious public have worried that the role of the unit is to use taxpayers’ money to ‘spin’ like hell in the interests of Fine Gael and Varadkar, as opposed to providing essential public information about government services in an efficient and cost-effective manner, its claimed role.
That claim now looks very shoddy given the furore created by the manner in which the government strategy plan ‘Ireland 2040’ has been communicated. Leaving aside the massive reheating of policies and announcements long made and yet to be delivered in the plan, it turns out that newspapers countrywide were paid for ‘advertorials’ made to look like media news and commentary. Some were even adorned with Fine Gael election candidates, grinning as only election candidates can grin, in key marginal constituencies. ‘Vote for me, look what I’m getting for you’ seemed to be the message. And all paid for by us, the taxpayer.
Varadkar has attempted to defend this by arguing unconvincingly that the unit operates at arms-length from government. He repeatedly states this. This is unconvincing because, thanks to the Sunday Business Post persisting with questions about the unit, the Information Commissioner forced Varadkar’s Department to release documents that say the very opposite. One such document, written by John Concannon himself, makes it clear that the effectiveness of the SCU:
‘will be dependent on regular structured access to senior government decision-makers and processes’.
So much for ‘arms-length’! Caught out, Varadkar has now ordered a review of the unit that, hopefully, will lead to its abolition.
Fine Gael have led government(s) here since 2011, despite the fact that in 2016 less than 1/5 of those entitled to vote for them did so. Over 80% of the electorate rejected the party of government. And Bertie Ahern was elected Taoiseach three times, despite massive issues about his finances, behaviours, corruption and cronyism, and following policies pursued throughout his tenure that utterly wrecked a nation. Yet Varadkar is Taoiseach and Ahern is said to have ambitions to be our President!
The media play a key role in these events and the extent to which, even in the digital age, traditional media shape public attitudes should not be underestimated. That media, by and large, is there to defend the vested interests of the rich and powerful. That is why it’s the rich and powerful that own and control it.
In that context the relationship that government – and our Taoiseach – has with the media, and how the communications we pay for are used, should always be distanced, professional and ethical. When those relations result in media acting as puppets of government or a Taoiseach (whether it is paid or unpaid puppetry) it is, as the Examiner rightly called it in 2013 ‘An Affront To Democracy’.
The Strategic Communications Unit should be abolished.