Strategic Communications review notes adverse effect on Brexit work

Controversy took up staff resources which damaged the ability to focus on priorities

The Department of the Taoiseach was spending much of its justifying the SCU’s very existence, the report finds. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

The Department of the Taoiseach was spending much of its justifying the SCU’s very existence, the report finds. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

 

The controversy surrounding the Strategic Communications Unit became so overwhelming for the Department of the Taoiseach that it had a negative impact on its work on Brexit, Northern Ireland and the economy, the review has found.

In his review published this week, the secretary general of the Government Martin Fraser said dealing with the intense political and media interest in the work of the SCU dominated much of the time of the staff of senior management.

“By way of illustration, the SCU has been the subject of 203 parliamentary questions, 63 Freedom of Information requests (of which 24 are completed), as well as a number of other debates, Leaders Questions in the Dáil, and a large number of press queries.

“This is now actively damaging our ability to effectively focus on our strategic priorities, such as Brexit, Northern Ireland, the economy and improving public services.”

It was that structural fault-line of the unit (that the Department was spending all its time justifying the SCU’s very existence), along with unrelenting distrust of the unit’s purpose from the Opposition, that led to Mr Fraser’s recommendation the unit be wound down by July.

Cleared of charges

In addition to Mr Fraser’s review, an assistant secretary at the department, Elizabeth Canavan, conducted an in-depth inquiry into the SCU’s handling of Project 2040. It wholly cleared it of charges of interference or of pursuing a partisan political agenda.

Several serious claims were made against it, namely that the SCU had somehow engineered a situation where advertorials on Project 2040 would feature Fine Gael candidates; and that the SCU directed or pressurised newspapers to pass off advertorials as regular news.

Direct contact with newspapers were through media agencies, including MediaForce Ireland, and not through the SCU. There were claims that this allowed the SCU to remain at one remove and use MediaForce Ireland as its proxy to assert its will.

There was also a claim in the media that MediaForce Ireland had directed editors to make advertorial copy look like news. The basis for this claim was an earlier campaign by MediaForce Ireland conducted for ‘Creative Ireland’, which had no connection to the SCU. The conflation of this separate campaign with Project 2040 led to claims that similar instructions were sent to newspapers. There was no evidence to bear out this claim.

In-depth review

Ms Canavan carried out an in-depth review of over 50 newspapers, and interviewed all the main protagonists in the controversy, including newspaper editors. She found no basis for the allegation SCU staff pressurised editors, directly or indirectly, to portray advertorials as news, or arranged for pictures of Fine Gael candidates to be placed in newspapers.

Ms Canavan said in the majority of cases it was clear the content was paid for, and in the case of the three regional papers where photos of candidates appeared, she confirmed the decision was made inhouse. However, one editor said Mediaforce Ireland had requested the content be made more “newsy”. There was also an email that said the “in partnership” formula of words obviated the need to use the term “advertorial” to distinguish the copy.

*In her review, Ms Canavan pointed to a discrepancy in emails provided to her by MediaForce and a regional editor on this point.

Having contacted a number of editors, Ms Canavan received from one of them a copy of the direction received by that publication from MediaForce. That email stated that the Project 2040 material should have a strapline that read “Brought to you in partnership with Project Ireland 2040”, then added: “This will clearly illustrate to readers that this is a Govt initiative and negate the need to have ADVERTORIAL on the page etc.”

However, in the email provided to Ms Canavan by MediaForce, it stated that the strapline should read “in partnership with the Government of Ireland” and did not include the reference to this negating the need for any reference to “advertorial” on the page.

In her report, Ms Canavan states that she advised MediaForce of the discrepancy and asked for its comments. However, she had received no explanation at the time of her writing the report.

The existence of the direction regarding the non-use of the word “advertorial” confirmed a story in the Ireland edition of The Times, which first reported on the existence of that email.*

 Ms Canavan concluded: “All [editors interviewed] commented on the fact that the editorial content elsewhere in the papers was distinguishable from the paid-for content and, in some cases, contained critique of the plan.”

*This article was amended on March 30th to include information on the discrepancy in emails provided to Ms Canavan.