Taoiseach Leo Varadkar
In the Dail.
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.”
Ó Fearghaíl: “Please.”
Varadkar: “I will be happy to provide it.”
Martin: “I thank the Taoiseach.”
Transcript via Oireachtas.ie
Related: Government ‘paid for good news stories’ over Ireland 2040 plan (Ellen Coyne, The Times Ireland edition)