Affronts To Democracy

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From top: Bertie Ahern in 2008; Project Ireland 2040 launch at the Institute of Technology, Sligo last month; Brendan Ogle

Brendan Ogle writes:

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 and Ellen Coyne, of The Times Ireland edition, 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 Fáil 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 Irish 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 Fáil, 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 paper 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. Ms 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 Fáil 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.

Micheál 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 bookies I’d be a tad surprised.

But he sure as hell seems to share Fianna Fáil’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,  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.

Brendan Ogle is a Right2Water Co-Ordinator, Unite’s Political, Education and Community co-ordinator. and blogs every Thursday here

Pics: Rollingnews, Engineers Journal

33 thoughts on “Affronts To Democracy

  1. Ina

    It always amazes me that every time Bertie is on the radio these days nobody asks him where he got the money from and is he still standing by the lie that he won it on the horses.

    1. Anomanomanom

      We all know where he got the money, remember he’s a guy who Charlie Haughty a rave review at his funeral. I know its a funeral so you play nice but it was sickening. Charlie also called him “the most cunning and devious of them all”. So yeah we all know where he got it from.

    2. Andrew

      He is continually invited on to Newstalk and RTE. I find it bizarre that this is normalised.

  2. Neilo

    Well, the column’s* as concise as ever but still an improvement on yer man Perry Groves. I do agree with the last sentence; there’s already a Govt. press office and the benighted taxpayers have no need of another.

    *The rhetorical equivalent of throwing thousands of magnetic letters at the world’s largest fridge door. Never mind the quality, feel the length.

  3. b

    “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.”

    FG got 25.4% of 1st preference votes and 31% of seats. Not sure how you conclude that over 80% rejected them.

    such a skewed version of democracy from someone railing against government spin and aligned to the party that got under 4% of votes.

    1. Cian

      “such a skewed version of democracy from someone railing against government spin and aligned to the party that over 99% of the electorate rejected
      Fixed that for you.

      it’s a standard response from people that lose elections. if there are 3.3 million voters on the register and 550K vote for FG, then obviously 2.7m didn’t vote for them (83%).

      1. Andrew

        I agree Cian.
        Who is Mr. Ogle aligned to these days? Is it PBP? I assume it’s not the Labour party.

          1. Neilo

            Quelle surprise. He might fancy a tilt at Adams’ seat in the next election. Newsflash for ya, Bren: there are a lot of disgruntled train commuters in Louth with long, bitter memories.

          2. Frilly Keane

            Sum’ting else
            Ol’ Brendan is no stranger to cosying up to Media and getting some spin for himself

            and has been dab hand at it too
            and for a lot longer than Leo

            I wouldn’t trust a word from him

  4. Jake38

    “……..exposing the manipulation of media for political advantage….”

    Ogle of course would know nothing about that…

    1. Rob_G

      I’m pretty sure that he solved the homeless that crisis that time out of the goodness of his heart, and not as a prelude to the launch of his wider political career.

  5. Andrew

    Good piece and fair enough. However the below is irrelevant: What matters in an election, is those who Do vote and not the imagined votes of those who didn’t. Otherwise, I agree with all of it.
    “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.”

  6. dav

    Thanks Brendan, for shining a light on the continuing corruption the civilwarshirts have heaped upon this nation..

  7. david

    To be honest if fine Gael were in chargeduring the boom the result would of been worse
    Look at how they handled the post crash
    Look at Iceland who burnt the bond holders
    Remember enda Kenny and the retrospective debt deal
    Remember 200 billion of distressed property sales post crash and not one penny taken off the 250 odd billion debt
    Where has that money gone?
    We are one of the most indebted countries per head of the population
    Now look forward to brexit
    One thing if it was not for fianna fail there would be no good Friday agreement to be destroyed by what is now in charge

      1. david

        Its true
        During the boom as I recall listening to enda Kenny pushing for more tax cuts etc measures to fuel the boom more
        Check history as I remember Iceland burnt bond holders and what happened
        Check history
        Over 200 billion of Irish property assets sold after bust fact
        Check history
        The bust raised our debt by 250 billion
        Our national debt was around 50 billion pre bust
        It still stands at over 200 billion
        So where did the money go?
        Now smarty pants what is your view on it?
        If a genius sells property to pay a debt that money reduces the debt so
        Who is an idiot
        I think you are

      1. david

        Actually wrong
        All I wrote is fact and true
        All that property disposed of to funds vulture hedge property companies project eagle etc where dod the money go ?
        It was not put towards the debt over 200 billion where is it? Please explain
        Has it gone into the fiscal space between Noonan ears?
        Come on tell me enlighten me

  8. ReproBertie

    For as long as I can remember TDs and county councillors have been dropping flyers in my door trumpeting how great they are. Doesn’t that all get funded by the tax payer?

    1. Barry the Hatchet

      To some extent, yes. Though there is an important distinction to make between public funds legitimately allocated to political parties and public funds appropriated by the party of government for party political purposes, under the guise of “strategic government communications”. And regardless of where the money’s coming from, at least you can see a party political leaflet for what it is. Here you can’t tell the difference between journalism and paid advertising.

  9. the bottler

    No doubt Hugh O’Connell, Justine McCarthy and Ellen Coyne all quivered in enraptured ecstacy on receiving deserved special mention from Mr Ogle!

  10. Matt Lucozade: The Only Reader of the Village

    Tell us Brendan about your time at the ESB. You know, hand-in-glove with the powers that be, and how then the Éirígí speech came… and was received.

    ”I’ve got a problem with the people that I represent who have power, because they also have money. They’re also – and they won’t mind me saying this because I say it to them often enough – they’re also spoilt.”

    Up to his neck in the Celtic Tiger co-option of trade unions.

    Is Broadsheet in with some kind of SCUSSers (Strategic Communications Unit Special Soapboxers) made up of O’Neil, Mooney, and McMahon that just regurgitates this
    old guff?

    It’s political advertorial. I’m sure you have a rate card.

  11. Truth in the News

    Lets not forget the Irish Independent intervention on election day in 1997 at the
    behest of the financially distressed Tony O’Reilly, is not from this stage the rot set
    in and gave Ahern and co a run that lasted till 2011, which has now being compounded
    by the current shower being propped by what’s left of Fianna Fail.

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