Varadkar Seems to Reverse Decision on Disbanding Strategic Communications Unit

Eoin Stynes reports on the recent controversy regarding the Taoiseach’s Strategic Communications Unit, Project Ireland 2040 and what is set to happen in the coming weeks

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The Taoiseach has gone on the offensive today in relation to the scandal surrounding the Strategic Communications Unit’s recent advertorial campaign in a fiery exchange with Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin politicians.

Micheal Martin accused the Taoiseach of “blurring the lines” between the promotion of political parties and the independence of the civil service.

Mr Varadkar stood by the unit stating that the charges against Fine Gael were “conspiracy theories” based on “innuendo” saying that: “I do believe in the separation of politics and the civil service.”

Both Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin called for the abolition of the unit today with Mary Lou McDonald calling for the Taoiseach to appear before the Public Accounts Committee to explain the use of public funds for political advertising in regional newspapers.

She said: “In the midst of all of this has been a very, very clear tactic to exploit the financial situation of regional media. That’s not lost on people either. The approach has been cynical and underhand.”

If I am spending 15% or 20% of my time dealing with queries about a communications unit in my department, that is distracting me from the things I think are much more important”

On Monday it seemed the Taoiseach had hinted at the possibility of disbanding the government’s Strategic Communications Unit after the unit’s advertorial campaign for Project Ireland 2040 were examined this week.

In response to the Irish Examiner on Monday the Taoiseach said that the controversy around the SCU has escalated to “a point that it has become a distraction to the workings of Government”.

If I am spending 15% or 20% of my time dealing with queries about a communications unit in my department, that is distracting me from the things I think are much more important.”

The Unit has come under fire in recent weeks due to increased scrutiny around the use of advertorial content disguised as editorials in newspapers and online to promote the government’s Project Ireland 2040 campaign.

Opposition parties have condemned the use of these advertorials with Independent politicians Katherine Zappone and Dennis Naughton they’re in the government  releasing a statement last week calling for a meeting with the Taoiseach and stating that: “Both ministers have expressed concern at allegations that newspapers were told to make the advertorials appear like genuine news stories.”

“If any such blurring of lines between adverts and editorial were to occur it would raise serious questions around transparency, press freedom and compliance with advertising rules. Communications is an important part of government, however all such activity must meet the highest standards.”

The adverts in question appeared in a number of national and regional newspapers in the form of editorial articles, with no clear markings or identification to show that it was a ‘paid for’ advert.

The revelations came to the fore after a report by Ellen Coyne in The Times showed that emails from Mediaforce – the advertising company working with the SCU – had previously requested that newspapers do not show “any moniker such as ‘Advertorial’ or ‘special feature’ or anything like that – it simply runs as normal editorial”.

The Independent also reported that in a letter to Martin Frazer – the secretary general who is taking charge of reviewing the SCU – stated that articles “should continue to be clearly identifiable”.

The Taoiseach stipulated that the only way to achieve this is to label them with the “Government of Ireland” logo accompanied by an advertorial, advertisement, commercial feature, special feature, or sponsored content notice.

When questioned by Claire Byrne whether she thinks the unit will be disbanded Coyne replied: “I think so.”

However, Hugh O’Connell – another journalist involved in the breaking of the story believes that the unit may survive but not in its current state: “I don’t think so, I think it will be overhauled [and] taken out of the office of the Taoiseach.”

Opposition parties have had a contentious relationship with the unit since its inception with Fianna Fáil labelling it as “a personal vanity unit” for the Taoiseach.

The secretary general is set to undertake and complete the review of the Strategic Communications Unit in the coming weeks.

With the recent inclement weather, the government will be hoping that this debacle will blow over soon. However – much like the recent snowfall – the clean up will be a long and protracted one.

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