Review of SCU unlikely to uphold claim it politicised Project 2040 publicity

Government review by top civil servant expected to be concluded at end of this week

 Sinn Féin’s   Pearse Doherty. “The SCU has been tarnished, and there has been political interference.” Photograph: Alan Betson

Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty. “The SCU has been tarnished, and there has been political interference.” Photograph: Alan Betson

 

The Government review of its Strategic Communications Unit (SCU) is likely to reject claims it politicised the publicity campaign for Project 2040, but at the same time will recommend fundamental changes in its operations.

The review, conducted by the State’s top civil servant Martin Fraser, is expected to be concluded at the end of this week, with the recommendations made public soon afterwards. “The SCU review is ongoing, but should be completed shortly,” a Government spokesman said.

It is understood Mr Fraser will not find any evidential basis for assertions by Opposition leaders that Ministers, or the SCU on their behalf, used the campaign to promote Fine Gael or to disguise advertorials as real news.

A key document in that regard is an email from a media agency to newspapers which suggested advertorial content be presented as normal copy. However, the email was sent in August 2017, before the SCU was established. It related to a separate Government initiative, Creative Ireland, and not to Project 2040. It is understood no corresponding instructions were issued for Project 2040.

John Concannon, the director of the SCU, was previously in charge of the Creative Ireland project.

However, it is also understood the review by Mr Fraser, who is secretary general of the government, will find that mistakes were made, and that there were insufficient controls and cross-checks.

Refocusing

The review might also reflect widespread criticisms of the SCU’s instruction to newspapers not to use the word “advertising”.

It is understood key recommendations will include a refocusing of the unit’s operations, significant structural change, and a possible name change.

Despite the denials of any political interference, the SCU has been consistently portrayed as a “spin unit” for Fine Gael and for Taoiseach Leo Varadkar by the Opposition.

Mr Varadkar accepted in the Dáil recently the unit was becoming a distraction. He has already instructed that any future advertising campaign should require the SCU, and not a media agency, to have final sign-off on copy and layout to ensure no perception of partisan political bias.

That stems from photographs of Fine Gael candidates appearing in three of the 25 provincial newspapers which carried Project Ireland advertorials. The Government has insisted those decisions were taken by local editors alone.

Independent panel

Ahead of the review Sinn Féin has tabled a Private Members Motion calling for the immediate disbandment of the SCU, and the establishment of an independent panel to examine the most effective way of operating government communications to ensure it is free from political interference.

The party’s finance spokesman, Pearse Doherty, said he could not see why the Government would hesitate to look at that model.

“The SCU has been tarnished, and there has been political interference,” said Mr Doherty. “It made of botched job of Project 2040, and promoted Fine Gael TDs and Senators in a number of media outlets.”

The Sinn Féin motion is likely to be supported by most other Oppositions parties and groups, including Fianna Fáil.

A Fianna Fáil source said the party’s front bench would decide on its stance on Tuesday. “It would be hard to see why we would not support it,” added the source.