Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and editor of the Irish Independent Fionnan Sheahan
On RTÉ’s Today with Sean O’Rourke.
On the show’s Gathering slot – Mr O’Rourke was joined by Fionnan Sheahan, editor of the Irish Independent, Sarah Carey, a columnist with Times Ireland edition, Independent Senator Ronan Mullen and Fine Gael Senator Catherine Noone.
During the slot, they discussed the Strategic Communications Unit.
Readers will recall how a series of recent articles about the unit, by Ellen Coyne, in the Times Ireland edition, has led to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar saying he may disband the unit.
From this morning’s exchange…
Fionnan Sheahan: “… a centralised unit to go about taking major policy initiative and actually explaining them over a concerted period of time. So if there are, if it was valid to set it up in the first place…I’m failing to see why Leo Varadkar is now backing off and saying ‘well, you know, we have to get rid of the whole thing’.”
Sean O’Rourke: “Well he’s not quite saying that. I mean he’s sort of holding it out there as a prospect that has to be looked at.”
Sheahan: “But I think he misses the point, when he attacks the Opposition for bringing this up – he’s actually missing the point about the nature of politics at the moment…”
“It is actually, there’s a valid reason why Micheal Martin and other Opposition leaders brought this up and it is about pure politics.
“The next election is not really about Fine Gael versus them, it’s about undermining Leo Varadkar. He is the one who is currently in the position where he is racing ahead of his own party in terms of his popularity ratings.
“His biggest problem this week is not actually the Strategic Communications Unit, it’ll play out in the Premiere Hall in Thurles tomorrow night when Fine Gael are trying to pick a candidate for the next general election. There are seven candidates in the field, none of whom are regarded as a frontrunner, none of whom actually, people on the ground are saying, are going to win a seat regardless and they probably won’t be the primary candidate.
“I think that’s Leo’s problem. He has, he’s found himself in a position where his big issue is going to be getting candidates who can actually -…”
O’Rourke: “Ok, look, to come to you Sarah Carey, Brian Murphy, the Taoiseach’s most senior advisor – and this emerged in an email that Hugh O’Connell had in the [Sunday] Business Post last Sunday – he says the costs could be enormous and can easily be spun, however inaccurately as a vanity project. So they knew what they were letting themselves in for here.
Sarah Carey: “Yeah, they did and it’s the job of political advisors to see around corners and to see how something that you might want to do could be criticised. Now I agree with Fionnan, in terms of the need for a strategic communications unit to roll out Government policies, exactly like that auto-enrolment.
“And indeed yesterday, I was at a seminar at the ESRI about behavioural economics and healthcare and how the HSE is trying to do the same thing with changing how they communicate with people and with their users and strategic communications is actually vital to that.
“Of course the suspicion here is and was borne out somewhat by the way these Ireland 2040 ads were placed in newspapers in a commercial basis but were requested not to be treated as commercial but to look more like editorial that therefore this unit is actually just being used to promote Fine Gael and so they absolutely need to be way more careful about that – that it really is seen as Governmental projects and not Fine Gael promotion.”
It should also be noted that last week, Ms Coyne, speaking about when the story broke, told RTE:
“…the initial reaction from Leo Varadkar was to claim that my story and similar reporting by Justine McCarthy in The Sunday Times was inaccurate.
“That led to a very heated exchange in the Dail during Leaders’ Questions on Tuesday and up to the unbelievable moment on Wednesday when Leo Varadkar went into the Dail and said on the public record that, actually, my story had been filled with anonymous sources who were secretly Fianna Fail candidates which is completely untrue.”
Readers may recall how Ms Coyne, in the Times Ireland edition on February 27, reported:
“A drive to cut hospital admissions during the winter flu crisis was among the publicly funded campaigns that local papers were instructed to present as a news story, The Times can reveal.
“The HSE was given final approval over journalists’ copy during the initiative, run by Mediaforce, the same agency used by the government for Ireland 2040 and Creative Ireland campaigns.
“To create advertorial content, local newspaper journalists were sent to interview staff at a number of HSE injury units. The interview was arranged by the media agency. It is understood that in at least one case, the journalists had been working in-house while others were freelancers.
“Mediaforce told journalists that the advertisements should be laid out like a normal news page. Yesterday, The Times revealed that the same firm told editorial staff that advertorials had to look like normal news stories. Correspondence seen by The Times shows that after journalists wrote the interview it was laid out on the page, often labelled as a “special feature,” and the HSE was allowed to request amendments.”
Front page on Monday: @thetimesIE reveals newspapers were instructed to make adverts look like news
Front page on Friday:
Complete overhaul of government adverts announced as a direct result of our stories pic.twitter.com/ell5SLxnY0
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Times Ireland edition journalist Ellen Coyne and a tweet by Ms Coyne last night
On RTE Radio One’s The Gathering…
Ellen Coyne, of TheTimes Ireland edition, took presenter Sean O’Rourke through the events of the week concerning her reporting of Leo Varadkar’s Strategic Communications Unit…
And how, using taxpayers’ money, paid for Government advertorials in regional newspapers and used an agency which specifically requested that the material didn’t appear as advertorial.
“The Ireland edition of The Times reported on Monday that with Ireland 2040 and with a similar advertising campaign for Creative Ireland, regional newspapers were instructed by an agency, commissioned by the Government to make publicly funded advertisements, promoting the Government, look like organic, independent news stories.
“So we reported that story on Monday, the initial reaction from Leo Varadkar was to claim that my story and similar reporting by Justine McCarthy in The Sunday Times was inaccurate.
“That led to a very heated exchange in the Dail during Leaders’ Questions on Tuesday and up to the unbelievable moment on Wednesday when Leo Varadkar went into the Dail and said on the public record that, actually, my story had been filled with anonymous sources who were secretly Fianna Fail candidates which is completely untrue.
“We kept reporting this story, I think the public got angrier, the Opposition were furious.
“And then that lead up to, yesterday, Independent Government ministers pulling Leo Varadkar to explain they were extremely unhappy with this – leading to, basically, an announcement last night that, from now on, the Strategic Communications Unit is going to be issued with clear guidelines, that means that if the Government is paying for ads that appear in your local paper or national paper, it’s going to be very, very clearly marked when it is an advertorial.”
“…The Taoiseach has been blue in the face all week saying that the Irish public deserves to know what the Government is doing with its money. That’s all the Ireland edition of The Times has been doing this week – making it clear to the public what this €1.5million advertising campaign is being used for…”
From top: Noel Rock TD; Ellen Coyne of The Times Ireland edition; Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in the Dáil on Tuesday and a segment of an email from Mediaforce Ireland to certain newspapers
Readers may know that The Times Ireland edition has been highlighting how the government’s Strategic Communication Unit’s promotional campaign for Project Ireland 2040 – involved paying for editorial content in local, regional and national newspapers.
The SCU was set up by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, after he was elected leader of Fine Gael and became Taoiseach last year.
It employs 15 people and is led by John Concannon, former head of Creative Ireland. The Government has budgeted the SCU will cost €5million this year.
Times reporter Ellen Coyne is reporting that ad agency Mediaforce Ireland, on behalf of the unit, advised newspapers not to mark the content as advertorial.
And they made the same demands during a similar campaign last summer for Creative Ireland.
Ms Coyne has tweeted a segment of an email sent to newspapers by Mediaforce Ireland, on behalf of the Strategic Communications Unit.
“Part of our deal is that we won’t have any moniker such as ‘advertorial’ or ‘special feature’ or anything like that – it simply runs as normal editorial.”
Ms Coyne has further tweeted that the bold and red highlighted sections in the twee (see above) were exactly how they were presented in emails to newspapers.
During Leader’s Questions on Tuesday, Taoiseach leo Vardkar told the Dáil:
“We have already explained how this [the paid content] works. The communications unit entered into media partnerships with media organisations. What happens there is that those organisations have editorial control over content.“
Readers may recall last Monday’s Today With Sean O’Rourke, when Fine Gael TD Noel Rock had the following exchange.
Noel Rock: “They’re [the paid content] clearly identified, from the reader’s perspective. I mean, I’ve yet to see a single example of one that hasn’t been clearly identified. All I’ve seen so far are the ones in the [Irish] Independent, in The Herald, on the Journal, which said at the top and the tail ‘sponsored content’.”
Sean O’Rourke: “Maybe if we had a copy of one of those 15 regional print and online news titles, you’d get a different impression.”
Rock: Perhaps but they have yet to be produced. All I’ve seen is a trumped-up charge and a press release.”
O’Rourke: “Oh, hold on now. Trumped-up charge. That’s a pretty loaded statement. I mean you’re suggesting that there’s fake news on the front of the Times Ireland edition today?”
Rock: “What I’m saying is there’s a complaint been made to the ASA about legal, decent, honest and truthful standards in advertising. And I’ve yet to see any proof whatsoever in that regard…”
Further to several reports this week and last in the Times Ireland edition about the State paying for content about the Government’s National Development Plan Project Ireland 2040 in some newspapers including the Irish Independent and The Irish Times…
And journalists being directed to make advertorial look like news…
Ellen Coyne reports today that some newspapers were told – by the media agency hired by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s Strategic Communications Unit, Mediaforce Ireland – that “if they did a good job writing positive editorial copy about Ireland 2040, they would be paid to write similar content on Brexit”.
It follows Ms Coyne, reporting on Monday, that:
One local editor told The Times: “This is fake news. Newspapers are struggling and the government know that, so they’ve got us by the balls.”
In today’s report, Ms Coyne reported:
Correspondence between Mediaforce and newspaper editors said that part of its “deal” with the government was that copy would not include a label similar to advertorial and that the sponsored content should look like editorial.
Editors were advised that the reason Mediaforce had been able to secure the Ireland 2040 campaign was because it would ensure that copy would match the “tone” of the newspapers it was running in. Journalists were told to give government copy a local angle and if they did a good job, there would be “more to come” on Brexit.
The SCU claimed it did not direct newspapers to blur the lines between editorial and advertisements. Mediaforce has not responded to requests for comment. The articles were marked as “in partnership” with Ireland 2040 or as “special reports” but more accurate terms such as “commercial feature” or “advertorial” were not used.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar answered questions related to the Strategic spin Communications Unit – which was established by Mr Varadkar when he was elected leader of Fine Gael and became Taoiseach.
Specifically, Mr Varadkar was asked about the promotion of the recently announced National Development Plan through the unit, in which there are 15 people now working, and the cost of the same.
Advertorials published in the Irish Independent and The Irish Times were also raised in the Dail exchange.
From the Dail exchange:
Leo Varadkar: “The remit of the strategic communications unit is to bring consistency, clarity and professionalism to all Government communications. Its focus is to treat communications as a whole-of-Government activity and to speak to our citizens in a way that they understand and so they can be aware of the Government services available to them and the actions that Government is taking on their behalf.
The focus of the work of the SCU comprises three work streams: first, streamlining communications to the citizen, including the roll-out of a single unified Government of Ireland identity programme and the migration to the consolidated Government platform of gov.ie, which will produce financial savings in the medium term; second, running and supporting cross-Government priority information campaigns; and, third, implementing a capacity-building professional development programme for officials working in communications across the Civil Service. Staff in the unit share responsibilities across these three work streams to deliver on the unit’s work programme.
At present, there are 15 staff working in the unit: one director, who is paid at assistant secretary level, one principal officer, four assistant principal officers, two higher executive officers, three administrative officers, three communications and media assistants and one executive officer. The former MerrionStreet, or Government information service, GIS, function has been integrated into this new structure. The Government press office continues to operate as before in dealing with day-to-day media queries under the direction of the Government press secretary, Nick Miller. The salaries of the staff in the SCU are met from my Department’s administrative salary budget, which was reduced in 2018.
As I have already stated to the House, a research tender with an estimated cost of €130,000, excluding VAT, was published on 18 September 2017 to commission an initial report of the Government and its services and a rolling tracker of attitudes towards it. The tender was awarded to Behaviour & Attitudes and the final results are expected to be available in late spring. These results will be published.
All media, both traditional and social, are utilised in the course of the delivery of campaigns by the unit. The choice of media is informed by the nature, subject and reach of the campaign. In some cases, media content partnerships with national and local media form part of campaigns in order to fully explain to citizens the various Government initiatives and actions and how they will impact their lives.
Joan Burton: “I thank the Taoiseach for his answer. He said “all media”.We heard yesterday that his Government is running advertising in cinemas, presumably directed largely at younger audiences. Does this mean that some of the advertising will also go to TV and radio? We need a clear answer on this because the concern, I think, of all Opposition Members is that the distinction between a party in government, or a governing party, and the Government is very clear in our Constitution. We asked the Taoiseach about this yesterday. He seems to be hell-bent on blurring the distinction between the two, and Fine Gael as a political party gets funding both in terms of the leader’s allowance and the payments made to the party. I said to him yesterday this is a fundamental issue for our democracy and our Constitution, and the fudging in the end will not do anyone any good.
“The Taoiseach’s press releases are no longer published on his Department website. Why is this? He has told us he is very interested in direct communication through social media, which is fair enough, but I think there is also a requirement for the text of what the Taoiseach is saying to be available. Will he also tell us about the outcome of the tender for the market research element of the contracts he advised us of last week and in earlier weeks? When will he publish the results? We are aware that Behaviour & Attitudes have apparently won the contract and we know about a number of other contracts that were won, including the one concerning the identity research to which his Government has committed and which he has not quite explained to us yet. Is this just classification of segments into different age groups?
An Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl: “We need to move on.”
Burton: “What is involved is incredibly similar to political deep-market background research, which includes the use of panels and survey groups.”
Ó Fearghaíl: “If we do not conclude the questions we will not have time for the answers.”
Micheál Martin: “Yesterday’s conversation on the marketing unit was helpful because it allowed time to fact-check some of the Government’s statements. Approximately €340,000 was the amount spent on the launch of the 2007 plan. I checked a parliamentary question tabled at the time by Ruairí Quinn. This does not compare with the amount spent on Friday’s launch, which was by far the most expensive and extensive ever by a Government.”
“In the context of the relationship with the media and the matter of the unit’s political activity, the national development plan was formally adopted by the Government last Friday but sectoral groups were fully briefed on Thursday. When it was announced, Fine Gael put up a new website with enormous detail of the plan, including exact wording and a county-by-county list of promises not published by the Government. This can only have come from direct political engagement with the unit. How does that fit with the Civil Service code?
“On the media content partnership, the Taoiseach must accept that there is something ethically dubious at the very least about one arm of the his Department seeking coverage for so-called exclusives about the plan while another is discussing major advertising spending with the same media outlets.
“The Taoiseach has said he wanted to get the media to run fewer negative stories. If we look at pages 24 and 25 of the Irish Independent – the position is the same in the The Irish Times – we can see articles marked as being in partnership with the Government. They are presented as articles but should we take it that they are actually advertisements?
“I have no issue with the Government advertising services in the media but these are political advertisements. They are articles placing the Government in a good light in terms of these issues. Every regional newspaper will have the biggest advertisement it has received in many years, block booked well in advance.
“This is saturation of good news stories presented in that manner by the media. There is an issue in terms of the health of our democracy and the ethical nature of the engagement of the Taoiseach and the Department in all of this. The blurring of the lines is genuinely very worrying from the point of view of parliamentary democracy. The Taoiseach will say that he is promoting the Government, but the dogs in the street know he is using taxpayers’ money to promote Fine Gael politically. That is the end of the story.
Pearse Doherty: “There is a very fine line in all of this and it is clear that the Government has stepped over it. There are probably legal issues in terms of a Government of Ireland initiative, and some of them actually require the approval of the Dáil. The question that arises relates to whose initiative is this really.
“These issues were dealt with at length yesterday and I do not want to rehash what was said. In the context of the budget set aside for the advertisements on the national development plan, we know they are running across various media, including radio, print, online and in cinemas. There is a valid debate to be had in respect of whether the advertisements are about making the Government look good – in my view, this is what they are – or whether they are about public information. Ultimately, public money is being spent and clarity is required and would be welcomed. How much money has been approved for these advertisements under the national development plan? It is important that this information is put on the table.
Varadkar: “People of all age groups attend the cinema. When I go to the cinema, I see people of all age groups, although I suppose it depends on what movie one goes to see. I imagine that younger people attend different movies to middle-aged people and older people. It is a good way to speak to a broad section of the community.
“To clarify, I do not have any role in designing any advertisements or deciding which medium is used and I am not consulted on this. I have asked not to be constructed on it. I have also asked not to see any advertisements before they are placed and I do not see them before they are placed.
Martin: “That was not the question.”
Varadkar: “I am not aware of any plans to use television advertising. There is, of course, no mention of political parties in any of these advertisements. In fact, there is no mention of the political parties in the Constitution. I note Deputy Burton spoke about the Constitution having a distinction between Oireachtas, Government and political parties. An interesting point about Bunreacht na hÉireann is that it does not acknowledge the existence of political parties, but that is an aside. Certainly, any advertising or information campaign material will not mention any political parties, groups of Independents or particular Independents and it certainly will not involve any call to vote in a particular way. This is in full respect of the McKenna judgment.
“Research will be published after it has been completed and it will be up to the director and the Secretary General to do this once it is done . There should not be any undue delay in publishing it once it is available.”
“Deputy Micheál Martin mentioned the function on the Fine Gael website, which is very good. I would certainly encourage people to take a look at it and see how Project Ireland 2040 will impact on their counties. People can scroll down, choose their counties and see a full breakdown of how the plan will they will be affected. I encourage people to look at it.”
Martin: “That was not the question.”
Varadkar: “To answer the question, there is no contact between civil servants in the unit or any part of my Department and party officials, and nor should there be.”
Martin: “So they just magic it up.”
Varadkar: “Of course, there is contact between serving politicians and their parties. I speak to Fine Gael and I do so very regularly, as do special advisers. The total budget for the unit is €5 million for this year and it is up to the directors to determine how it is best spent and spread across the various campaigns.”
Ó Fearghaíl: “That concludes questions to the Taoiseach.”
Doherty: “The Taoiseach did not give an answer on the national development plan promotion.”
Martin: “Will the Taoiseach give us a report on the media content partnership in a fully transparent manner? Will he give me a paper on it?”
Varadkar: “I do not have it.”
Martin: “Of course the Taoiseach has it. The information in his Department.”
Doherty: “Can we get an answer to the question? If the information is not available, will it be submitted—–”
Varadkar: “If Deputy Micheál Martin writes to the Secretary General, I am sure he will give it to him.”
Martin: “That is not the answer.”
Varadkar: “I will have to see the information first.”
Martin: “This is a parliamentary democracy. I am asking a question and the media partnership is something on which we should get an answer. That is all. What is the nature of the partnership and how does it work?”
Ó Fearghaíl: “Will the Taoiseach see if he can respond?”
Varadkar: “I do not even know if it exists.”
Doherty: “I asked a specific question and I understand the Taoiseach does not have the specific answer. Will he furnish the information to us? The question relates to the cost of the promotion of the national development plan through the unit.”
Varadkar: “That will not be known until the campaign is finished.”
Martin: “Stop, this is outrageous.”
Doherty: “A budget will have been approved for it and that is the information we require.”
Burton: “The Taoiseach should be able to tell us the cost—–”
Ó Fearghaíl: “We have concluded questions.”
Burton: ” —–of the cinema advertisements and the other advertisements.”
Ó Fearghaíl: “Please Deputies, we have concluded questions.”
Martin: “The Taoiseach has information on all the costs because the deed has been done. A person would not get into the cinema without paying his or her money upfront.”