The Fine Gael government in Dublin has been using public money for a marketing campaign that required Irish newspapers to make government propaganda look like news, it has emerged.
A 1.5 million euro advertising budget for the government’s 2016 centenary programme, ‘Creative Ireland’, and its recent ‘Ireland 2040’ campaign for new capital spending projects, was recently dispensed to the Irish mainstream media. Editors were told the “deal” included making the advertising look like actual news articles.
According to the Sunday Times, emails sent by government spin doctors to newspapers about the advertising campaigns asked for the content to appear as “editorial”. One email stated: “Part of our deal is that we don’t have any moniker such as ‘advertorial’ or ‘special feature’ -- it simply runs as normal editorial”.
A number of journalists confirmed they were asked to write positive news pieces, which could not include negative or critical content. They were told the double-page spreads were to look like independent stories and part of “the normal news cycle”.
In one publication, the Longford Leader, a photograph of a local councillor, who was also a Fine Gael candidate in the general election, appeared in the paid-for content.
Newspapers were told by the government’s media agency that if they did a good job writing positive editorial copy about Ireland 2040, they would be paid to write similar content on Brexit.
Some of these articles are thought to have already been printed. The Irish mainstream media’s coverage of the first phase of Brexit negotiations in December was criticised for portraying a fudged draft agreement on Brexit as a political triumph for Varadkar.
The advertising campaigns were commissioned by the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s controversial ‘Department of Spin’, the “Strategic Communications Unit”, which has a budget of around 5 million euro a year.
Although having had considerable impact -- his party’s ratings have jumped by nearly a quarter since it was created last year -- Varadkar now faces mounting pressure to disband it.
Seamus Dooley, the Irish secretary at the National Union of Journalists, has called for an independent media academic to be appointed to evaluate the government’s media efforts.
Labour TD Alan Kelly said the latest advertising campaigns were “Goebbels territory”. Two independent TDs, Katherine Zappone and Denis Naughten said there were “serious questions around transparency, press freedom and compliance with advertising rules”.
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald described the Communications unit as the “propaganda arm” of the Taoiseach and Fine Gael, while Micheal Martin, the Fianna Fail leader, said the Taoiseach had “blurred the lines and is going down a dangerous route which has, ultimately, the potential to corrupt our democratic process itself”.