FIANNA Fáil’s argument that the Government was blurring the lines between journalism and advertising with its Project Ireland 2040 marketing strategy turned heated in the Dáil on Wednesday, when proceedings were suspended after TD Marc MacSharry made an anti-semitic remark about the Government.
Speaking from Leinster House, Fianna Fail’s communications spokesperson Deputy Timmy Dooley has distanced himself from his colleague’s remarks, describing them as “emotive”.
Deputy Dooley had highlighted the approach taken by the Government in promoting Project Ireland 2040, by demanding that the secretary general of the Department of the Taoiseach and the head of its Strategic Communications Unit come before the Oireachtas Communications Committee to provide details of its marketing strategy.
He said his party believes the Government is “attempting to blur the lines between journalism and advertising. Of course, it is appropriate for Government to advertise in media generally and successive governments have done that but it is always made clear that it is government originated and, up to now, has always been identified as advertising in nature”.
Deputy Dooley asserts that “people within Government have attempted to have certain titles carry stories that appear to come from recognised and trusted journalists, even though the content is provided by Government is unedited. That undermines journalism and is wrong,” he said.
This newspaper, The Clare Champion, carried the advertorial feature under the banner of a feature in last week’s edition, but also included independently-generated copy by journalists relating to the plan, as managing director John Galvin explains.
“The Clare Champion was provided with this advertising copy from our national agency, Mediaforce. At no point were we asked to make the copy look like regular editorial and none of our journalists worked on it. The page was clearly marked as a feature to emphasise that it was not editorial copy generated by ourselves. In the same issue, we carried several stories relating to the plan and these had full editorial independence in keeping with our policies”.
Deputy Dooley said, “I’ve no objection to what The Clare Champion did, it handled it in an ethical way, but other titles were approached.
“You [Champion] handled it in an appropriate way, unfortunately others didn’t. In the past, these pieces were written as op ed pieces by various ministers, so it was clear that it was the Government talking and there was branding to say it was a commercial feature or advertorial and lines at the bottom that qualified what went above.”
Deputy Dooley added that “some papers, such as The Limerick Leader, The Longford Leader and many others had exclusive pictures of Fine Gael TDs and, in some cases councillors and prospective Dáil candidates, and that is the issue we have, that they are using taxpayers’ money to promote candidates”.
He claimed there was €1.5m allocated on this campaign. “It is fine to advertise the plan but there is no overriding necessity to push this plan, it runs out to 2040. I think what the people in Clare would like to know is when these projects will be delivered. So if there’s a road from Limerick to Cork, people along that route would like to know where will it go, when will it start and when will it be finished.”
He said while he had no difficulty, in principle, with the content of the advertisements, which were governmental in nature, he said, “What I have a problem with is that it appears as though it is produced by the title and that it is not clear that it is Government propaganda; that notion that this is the Government in partnership with the media.
“It is impossible to understand how Government and local papers can be in partnership. Media is there to hold Government, politics and the public to account, so this idea that the Government is in partnership is troubling,” he continued.
After the debate on this subject took a turn in the Dáil on Wednesday evening, Deputy Dooley referred to words used by Deputy Marc MacSharry as “perhaps emotive language”.
The matter is expected to be raised at the Oireachtas Communications Committee and Deputy Dooley said the point of this is to “ensure that the strategic communications unit within the Department of the Taoiseach don’t attempt to exploit a situation where the print media is under pressure looking for good paying advertising from the State and that they don’t choose that opportunity to blur the lines between media and Government”.
He said neither should the unit “influence the editorial content of newspapers”.
“It is fine to buy advertising but mark it and flag it as such and not to abuse the dominant position of Government at a time when media organisations are struggling to survive,” he concluded.