Government’s approach is to pay for coverage of policy decisions
Varadkar has set up a unit with a €5m budget to push his branding agenda
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar: he is strongly committed to the idea that image and branding is a core part of politics
Last Thursday evening, as Storm Emma’s blizzards were at their height and well after most newspaper deadlines had passed, Government sources let it be known that the Taoiseach was engaged in a major U-turn about the activities of his Strategic Communications Unit (SCU).
As most people know, this controversy has swirled around the increasingly blatant and aggressive approach by the Taoiseach’s staff to using public money to shape media coverage.
Having spent two weeks claiming everything was fine and no one had a right to be concerned about the propagandistic output which it was funding, the Taoiseach wrote to his secretary general asking that the unit be subject to greater restrictions on how it could purchase space in newspapers.
So even though “nothing was wrong” – and it certainly had nothing to do with the Taoiseach – he has asked the country’s most senior civil servant to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
True modern communications by government is a two-way process, where the emphasis in on information and not advocacy
So, is this the end of the matter? No. Not by a long stretch.
Adding “commercial feature” over some of the advertising and not using Government money to advertise Fine Gael candidates is only one small part of the problem.
The most important thing to realise is that this unit has nothing whatsoever to do with trying to improve communications with citizens. In reality it is a crude attempt to use public money to give Government parties a decisive advantage over all others.
It is a reversal of 25 years during which great progress was achieved in depoliticising large parts of State activity.
True modern communications by government is a two-way process, where the emphasis in on information and not advocacy. It seeks to answer questions and make the State more responsive to the people it is supposed to serve.
This is the opposite of what the Taoiseach’s large and expensive unit has been set up to do.
Its agenda was set immediately after he took up office. No citizen was consulted before the priorities were set. The only consideration was what would the Government like to sell to the people.
As explained to The Irish Times’s Pat Leahy by a Cabinet Minister last July, “we’ll be turning Government activity into a Fine Gael message”.
The Taoiseach himself informed the Dáil that the SCU would help address what he sees as the imbalance of coverage of Government, which he estimated at 80 per cent negative, by making it more like 50/50.
In working to achieve its politically-set objectives the unit has taken a radical approach to changing how the Government uses money to try to persuade us that our affairs are overseen by generous, hyperactive and visionary souls. In doing this it is adopting three broad strategies.
The first is to brand all State activity as emanating directly from Cabinet. This involves a complete move away from building connections with institutions and agencies. It is no longer the department or agency responsible for a change which is linked to it, but the Government.
For example, an increase in the minimum wage recommended by a statutorily independent expert group is now presented as coming from a beneficent Government rather than because of procedures set out in legislation decided on by the Oireachtas.
The second strategy is the mirror opposite of the first – if it is bad news make sure someone other than the Government is responsible.
In the last two weeks figures were published which showed dramatic disimprovements in homelessness and hospital waiting lists. “Strategic” communications meant that Government members withdrew from the spotlight in an effort to push responsibility elsewhere and limit the reach of the news.
The third element of the strategy is to significantly increase the use of public money in promoting Government policies. The advertising of major initiatives has been common for decades. However, what is different is the decision to systematically advertise ongoing policy.
For example, every year the government publishes its education policy. For the past four years this has been branded as the “Action Plan for Education”, but it is simply a consolidated account of educational activity, including well-established policy.
Instead of relying on trying to secure media coverage through speeches, policy initiatives and the normal business of communication, the new “strategic” approach is to advertise.
The attempt to blame the incredible political bias of the paid coverage as the fault of over-enthusiastic editors is absurd
Basically, it has been decided to cut out the middleman and pay for coverage of political policy decisions and the ongoing work of government.
Let no one pretend that this is simply normal practice. It is a radical departure from the basic principles of a government which has to make its case in parliament and through an independent media towards one which seeks to buy better coverage and to blur the distinction between the State’s interests and the interests of the main Government party.
The attempt to blame the incredible political bias of the paid coverage as the fault of over-enthusiastic editors is also absurd.
The entire approach of the unit has been to import the approach of the Culture Ireland Initiative, which funded media outlets only if the paid content was presented as news.
Image and branding
The Taoiseach is strongly committed to the idea that image and branding is a core part of politics. Where he has gone too far is the establishment with public money of a unit with 15 people and a budget of €5 million in order to push this agenda.
Stepping back on the outrageous abuse of National Development Plan advertising is necessary, but it does nothing to deal with the wider and more troubling idea that major resources should be dedicated to branding Government, sidelining difficult news and trying to shift the balance of public debate through public funding rather than open discussion.
If the Taoiseach is sincere in wanting Government to communicate better with citizens then he should go back to the drawingboard. He should end the marketing approach, and start by asking citizens what public information they want to receive as a priority.
He should then put the provision of this in the hands of a genuinely independent entity which can win broad political legitimacy.
Dara Calleary is Fianna Fáil spokesman on public expenditure