Ceisteanna – Questions. - Government Information Service.

Pat Rabbitte

Ceist:

10 Mr. Rabbitte asked the Taoiseach the role and function of the Government Press Office and the Government Information Service; the budget for each in 2003; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15782/03]

Pat Rabbitte

Ceist:

11 Mr. Rabbitte asked the Taoiseach if new instructions have been given to the Government Press Office or the Government Information Service as to the circumstances in which he will accept questions from members of the media at functions or events; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15783/03]

Enda Kenny

Ceist:

12 Mr. Kenny asked the Taoiseach the functions of the Government Press Office; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16551/03]

Joe Higgins

Ceist:

13 Mr. J. Higgins asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the functions of the Government Press Office and Government Information Service; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16773/03]

Trevor Sargent

Ceist:

14 Mr. Sargent asked the Taoiseach the functions of the Government Press Office and the Government Information Office; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17660/03]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 10 to 14, inclusive, together.

The Government Press Office and Government Information Service provide an information service on Government policy to the public through the national and international media on behalf of myself, my Department and the Government. They also promote a co-ordinated approach to media matters across all Departments.

The Government Press Office issues press releases and speeches to the media, briefs political correspondents, organises photo-calls, information campaigns and ministerial representation on current affairs programmes. The Government Press Office also disseminates information to the domestic and international media on the web and via e-mail.

The Government Press Office and the Government Information Service, in conjunction with the Department of Foreign Affairs, organise and manage the media aspects of State visits and major State occasions. Staff of the Government Press Office and departmental press officers are available after hours and at weekends to answer media queries.

The budget for the Government Press Office last year was €522,011.33 and to date in 2003 is €203,759.76. The budget for the Government Information Service in 2002 was €373,271.60 and to date in 2003 is €114,195.39. These figures include administrative costs, salaries, advertising, photography, travel and subsistence.

No new instructions have been given to the Government Press Office or the Government Information Service as to the circumstances in which I will accept questions from members of the media at functions or events. Due to the growth in the number of broadcast media attending public engagements, it was necessary to purchase a microphone stand, which provides all broadcasters with a platform on which to put their microphones for ease of access and recording. Two such stands were purchased by the Government Press Office at a total cost of €80. The duty press officer brings the stand to public engagements to which the media are invited.

One reads that new instructions have been given to these people to the effect that, from now on, the Taoiseach will be more aloof and less accessible. Is there any truth in that? What is the point of this organisation being there to communicate information when, for example, it convened a lavish press conference where no questions were to be put by members of the media? When there was a dispute, however, three or four questions were permitted.

A few weeks ago, I recall accidentally stumbling on a situation during one or other controversy involving the Government, where a journalist was berated by a member of this general information service for door-stepping Ministers on their way into Cabinet meetings. I happened to overhear the journalist being told in no uncertain fashion that that would not be acceptable any more.

May I ask the Taoiseach if the aeroplane flying over Croke Park, with a sign saying "Well done, Bertie", was a creature of the Government Information Service? Does he have any idea from where the aeroplane took off, who is behind it, who paid for it or what it was about?

The White House.

The only change involves the microphone stand, which is a purely technical matter. Deputy Rabbitte will understand that it is to avoid having microphones all over the place, with arguments and pushing among individual journalists. The stand brings a bit of order to that situation. I am still trying to take the Deputy's advice to convince the media that when I do all these question and answer sessions, they should play back the whole ten or 15 minutes I spend speaking. The Deputy has the frustration of having to listen to me for 30 seconds but I suffer the frustration of having to speak for 15 minutes, yet I only get 30 seconds on air. If the Deputy can help me with that matter I would be very grateful.

I know absolutely nothing about the aeroplane over Croke Park, good, bad or indifferent. As regards what happened at the press conference for the launch of the programme for Government, in previous years the document was given out at a photo-call. This year, however, that message was not communicated and some journalists had turned up who obviously had no interest in a photo-call. As soon as I heard that, I agreed to take questions. That is how it happened.

We cannot have a situation where unidentified aircraft are flying over our cities with the Taoiseach's name hanging out the back. The airline industry is one of the most regulated in the world and the same standards apply to it in this country as anywhere else.

The question might be more appropriate to the Minister for Transport.

Or the Minister for Defence.

I am coming to that point.

Is the question related to the five questions before us?

The question relates to the Government Information Service or the Government Press Office. Any aircraft, such as the one referred to last Sunday, has to file a flight path and must have permission to overfly a populated area like Dublin, including Croke Park.

The Deputy should put a question appropriate to the five preceding questions. This matter does not arise from those questions.

Is it not in the Taoiseach's interest to find out from where this aircraft came and who authorised it?

It would be a good idea.

I am sorry, Deputy, but we are moving well away from the subject of the five questions before the House.

Who filed the flight path and who sought permission for it?

I am calling Deputy Joe Higgins.

Who authorised it? I am sure it would be of interest to the Taoiseach to find out from where this plane came.

If the leader of the Government does not know that there are unidentified aircraft flying around, was it his brother who organised it? He had to go on the airwaves this morning to defend the Taoiseach.

And we are not even in NATO.

Deputy Kenny, you have gone ahead of us to questions for the Minister for Transport. We are dealing with questions to the Taoiseach about the Government Press Office.

Deputy Kenny has raised a pertinent point. As regards flying Bertie's name over Croke Park, is it not the role of the Government Press Office to be aware of any such thing being planned by a constituency colleague down in Inisvickillane for example?

In that case, it would not be his name flying out the back of the aeroplane.

If that is the case, is there not a need to clarify the instructions to the Government Press Office in such situations? It certainly has not indicated whether or not it condones or criticises such flights. When the Taoiseach appeared with Deputy Harney, questions were not initially sought until he stood up to take them. Is there an individual in the press office whose role it is to tell the Taoiseach whether or not to answer questions, or is that a matter for the Fianna Fáil Party spin masters? Would there be a conflict of interest in the Government's chief press officer telling the Taoiseach what to do when the questions relate to his own party?

Normally, whenever I attend Government functions, the Government Press Office regulates them. Government press officers are not in attendance at Fianna Fáil functions, where Fianna Fáil press officers deal with the Taoiseach.

At Government functions the Taoiseach is speaking about Fianna Fáil's performance.

Please allow the Taoiseach to reply.

That has been the long-standing practice and there are clear demarcation lines between the Taoiseach and a party leader. That practice is followed very strictly by my Department.