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.”
Previously: “They’re Loud And They’re Growing”