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What happens next? Report finds no evidence of wrongdoing by Strategic Communications Unit

A review published tonight has acknowledged that the placement of Fine Gael candidates in Project 2040 advertorials was “unsatisfactory”.

The unit will be wound down by the end of July this year.
The unit will be wound down by the end of July this year.
Image: PA Wire/PA Images

THE GOVERNMENT CONFIRMED today that it will wind down the Strategic Communications Unit after a review prompted by State-funded advertising for the Project 2040 plan in national media.

Questions were raised in recent months about how advertorials in local and national newspapers were presented during the rollout of the Project Ireland 2014 national planning framework.

In the fallout, a majority in the Dáil voted to disband the SCU.

A review by Secretary General of the government Martin Fraser, published tonight, found there is no evidence of a breach of the Civil Service Code by public servants working in the SCU, whether by seeking favourable coverage for Fine Gael candidates or otherwise.

The SCU had been tasked by the government with developing a major national communications plan for Project 2040, including a national launch, regional events, written material, advertising, media partnerships and paid advertorials.

Some €1.5 million was allocated to this, though not all of that fund has been spent to date.

Editors in the relevant newspapers also told the review that the choice of both quotes and photos was determined by them at a local level and was not subject to any outside influence.

The review did identify a discrepancy between email directions to regional editors supplied by advertising agency Mediaforce and that supplied by an individual editor.

In one email to regional newspapers, a Mediaforce staff member said content should include a government logo and should read “National Development Plan in partnership with the Government of Ireland”

“This will clearly illustrate to readers that this is a Govt initiative,” they said.

In an email from an editor in one of the papers, forwarding this Mediaforce brief, an additional line stated that the use of the partnership line would “negate the need to have ADVERTORIAL on the page etc.”

The review states that Mediaforce has not replied to explain why this line was missing from the original email.

Fraser said that although there was no attempt by the SCU to place Fine Gael candidates in advertorials, this did occur in a small minority of newspapers as a result of independent editorial decisions”.

“Clearly, even if this was not intended, this outcome was unsatisfactory and it has given rise to legitimate concern and criticism.

The approach used by the SCU was to book advertorial space in newspapers, to provide relevant factual information about Project Ireland 2040 to newspapers, and to leave editorial control with those newspapers.

The review notes that all of the staff of the SCU “took up their positions in good faith and are dedicated public servants”.

“They have worked extremely hard and have produced work of a very high quality.”

What happens next?

The government said there will be a transition period for the wind down between now and the end of July this year. All of the recommended steps set out in the review are expected to be implemented by that time.

The director of the SCU John Concannon will also remain in place until the end of July.

  • The traditional Government Information Service will take over some of the unit’s functions, but it will have a more “co-ordinating and supporting” role.
  • Campaigns will be led and funded by the relevant line departments. This means Project Ireland 2040 will be the responsibility of the new Project Ireland 2040 Delivery Board, led by the Department of Public Expenditure.
  • Where expenditure has already been committed, but not spent by the SCU, it will be redirected to “non-contentious campaigns” such as Healthy Ireland or Brexit preparation.
  • Each staff member will be given the opportunity to be reassigned to another post within the civil service. In some cases they will continue their work in a reformed GIS.

Government relationship with media

As part of his review, Fraser pointed out that the media situation has evolved rapidly and the government is now required to provide a 24/7 service to media organisations on all topics of interest and with short response times.

“Recent severe weather events and the 1916 commemorations are a good example of successful engagement which might provide some lessons for the future,” he said.

It is also evident from the review of expenditure that there is a very important non-political commercial relationship between public service organisations and the media, which involves the expenditure of large amounts of public money on communications.

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He said the controversy about the SCU should not be allowed to create a “chill factor” in that relationship in the future by deterring the public service from using sponsored content.

“Publication of such content is an essential part of the business model of the Irish media sector. It will become more important in future, as native advertising/sponsored content becomes a central part of media revenue in the digital era,” he said.

“Separate from issues relating to the SCU, the issue of the financial health of the Irish media should be a matter of national policy debate.

“A thriving, independent Irish media – whether in the public or private sector – is essential to a healthy society. In the modern world of global media, online platforms and reduced audiences and readerships, it cannot and should not be taken for granted.”

This must not involve any element of inappropriate influence from the government, he said.

“This whole area involves important and complex policy issues which should be the subject of consideration by the government, the Oireachtas and in the wider public debate.”

A government spokesperson said the Taoiseach did not regret setting up the unit, stating that the SCU did a lot of “good work”.

They insisted the closure of the SCU was a separate issue to the promotion of the Ireland 2040 plan, adding that it was being wound down due to the “political noise” around it and due to the “good work of the SCU being disrupted” by those in the opposition benches.

With reporting by Christina Finn


Read: Leo’s controversial Strategic Communications Unit to be wound down within months>

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