Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Ceisteanna (1, 2, 3)

Catherine Murphy

Ceist:

1. Deputy Catherine Murphy asked the Taoiseach if the attention of the strategic communications unit was drawn to the fact that it must comply with rules that relate to advertising standards; the number of publications that were approached to include paid content with respect to the national planning framework, NPF, capital plan; the budget for this campaign; the reason it was decided to ensure the advertisements resembled news reporting; and his plans to alter this strategy. [10927/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Michael Moynihan

Ceist:

2. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if officials from his Department particularly the SCU met editors of the national and regional newspapers in the past six months. [11374/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

3. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach his plans to reform the strategic communications unit. [12933/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (22 contributions) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.

As I previously informed the House, a review is currently being undertaken into the work of the strategic communications unit. This review will be concluded before Easter. The results of this review will inform the future structure, role and work plan of the unit.

A clear instruction was given from the SCU to the media buyer that all media partnerships needed to be clearly identifiable as such. This was to be achieved by the use of the wording, "brought to you in partnership with Project Ireland 2040" or "brought to you in partnership with Project Ireland 2040, an initiative of the Government of Ireland". A decision was not taken to ask that the advertorial should resemble news reporting. I am happy to refute that allegation once again.

In keeping with previous national development plans, Project Ireland 2040 is being communicated to citizens through media partnerships. Content partnerships were established with the following media outlets: The Irish Times, the INM Group, the Examiner Group, Journal Media and a suite of 30 regional newspapers. While the full spend will not be finalised until the end of the campaign, an indicative budget of €1.5 million was allocated for Project 2040. However, it is now envisaged that this will not all be spent. No meetings were held with editors of regional newspapers. In the development of content partnership agreements, management and editorial staff of national newspapers were met by staff members.

I made a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland which made me look at the codes of the authority. One particular code states, "A marketing communication should not mislead, or be likely to mislead, by inaccuracy, ambiguity, exaggeration, omission or otherwise." There is, at the very least, ambiguity in respect of some of these advertorials. That is being kind. They resembled and could have been interpreted by the reader as a normal editorial as opposed to an advertisement. Lines were significantly blurred as a consequence. I asked some parliamentary questions and I got replies to them last night. I was shocked at the amount of money being spent on advertising. That is a separate issue and I do not want to conflate the two issues because I think the strategic communications unit is causing a serious problem. The Taoiseach would not be reviewing it if it was not.

One company was paid just under €250,000. I am flabbergasted at the amount. Some of this is cross-departmental. There is a significant issue in respect of value for the money that is being spent. I do not want to conflate the two issues. The strategic communications unit is a serious blurring of the lines between politics and the public service. That does neither politics nor the public service any favours. It should not just be reviewed but should be dispensed with.

In yesterday's petty and self-regarding speech from the Taoiseach, he again questioned why we should be talking about this at all. I must remind the Taoiseach that it was he who made this a personal priority and devoted significant Government time and resources to it. After only nine months in office, the Taoiseach is becoming increasingly intolerant of people challenging him. We have reached a serious moment where he believes he owns the Government while Parliament should stay quiet and get out of the way. That is the only way I can interpret his behaviour on this particular issue.

It has been leaked by his staff that the official who oversees the unit will report that everything is fine with the unit and that any mistakes were made by outsiders. It appears to be the Taoiseach's position that he will use this closed internal review to declare vindication and move on. Yesterday the Taoiseach said the Dáil has no right to interfere in a purely Civil Service matter. That is a serious construct to put on matters. Documents released under freedom of information legislation show that it was the Taoiseach who instructed the unit be established, recommended its head and brought a memo to Cabinet to finalise its establishment. At every stage, this was a political process led by the Head of Government who is directly and constitutionally responsible to the House.

Will the Taoiseach respect the will of Parliament or will he carry on regardless? Will he continue to deny the right of the Dáil to a say on the matter which he and his Government are involved in as it is a Government political priority? Will he indicate the national newspaper editors met by his staff, which he outlined at the end of his answer? Does he accept policies determined by him are open for parliamentary scrutiny and accountability?

Yesterday the Dáil debated a Sinn Féin motion calling for the disbandment of the strategic communications unit. If he were wise, the Taoiseach would take heed and credence of that. Questions have arisen not just about value for money - I do not wish to conflate the issue of advertising either as Deputy Catherine Murphy has said - but, more importantly, the appropriate uses of public moneys. It is a communications disaster to ignore the fact that those questions have now arisen, not simply among political rivals or those who, as the Taoiseach said, may wish to dent his popularity, but among the general public and taxpayers who actually fund all of this.

For the life of me, I cannot understand why the Taoiseach stands by a review that is internal in its nature and whose independence, irrespective of the qualities of the persons involved, comes into question. I cannot understand why he is clinging to this so rigidly. The smarter way ahead, and what would communicate a progressive message to the public we serve, would be if the Taoiseach stated he is willing to stand this unit down and in a collegiate and non-party way that we put our heads together to decide the best and most efficient way to enhance all of Government communications. Members are more than able to participate in such a project. It would certainly demonstrate bona fides on the part of the Taoiseach. So far, however, blindly, arrogantly and in a high-handed way, he has suggested the Dáil has no business to ask questions on this matter. That is quite an outrageous position for any Taoiseach to take.

The Taoiseach has made many comments on the strategic communications unit since it became a matter of controversy, including saying the unit itself was getting in the way of the communication of the Government's message. Has he inputted into the review himself in his own reviews?

Regarding the Sinn Féin motion before the House, if Dáil Éireann votes for the abolition of the unit, will the Taoiseach respect and implement that instruction?

As the unit is currently extant, is it still advertising? Will the Taoiseach agree that full transparency on the type of advertising needs to be made now? Has the unit, or contractors from the unit engaged by his Department, met with the owners of commercial radio stations or the directors of local or commercial radio stations? Was there an allocated budget planned for local radio advertising by the unit? If so, how much was it?

I will do my best to answer questions raised. Deputies will be aware that I spoke on this matter yesterday in Private Members' time for about ten minutes. I do not propose to repeat today what I said less than 24 hours ago in my speech.

I understand the Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland, ASAI, has decided not to hear the complaint in question as it was non-commercial and, therefore, did not come under its remit.

I have immense regard for the House. I was an Opposition and Front Bench Deputy for several years. I have been a Minister and am Taoiseach now. I am sure I will not always be Taoiseach. I have immense respect for the House, having sat in many positions in it. I also obviously understand the separation of powers and the different role that Parliament has to the Government. A Government's role is executive and it makes decisions. The Parliament's role is legislative in that it passes primary legislation and can annul secondary legislation.

It also controls money by constitutional right.

This is not a legislative matter. However, I will take into account any motion passed by the House on any matter.

What is disrespectful to the House is the making of allegations which are not supported by evidence. There has been so much of that in this controversy. When they are not backed up by evidence, the decent thing is to withdraw them. There has been much of that. Making stuff up is not showing respect for the House. I just heard a Member say that I said the Dáil should not ask questions. I never said that. I do not believe people should make stuff up. That is not respectful to the House. I do not believe conspiracy theories are respectful to the House either. There have been so many of them. I am waiting for people to allege that I was somehow involved in the assassination of JFK on the basis I visited Dealey Plaza in Dallas last week. Conspiracy theories are beneath people and disrespect the House. Misquoting people is too.

On Sinn Féin's suggestion to have an Oireachtas panel, it is not for me to establish one. If the Oireachtas wishes and votes to do so, it can appoint a chair and terms of reference. That is a matter for the Oireachtas.

There were media partnerships planned with local radio but they did not proceed with. That would have been within the €1.5 million allocation but, obviously now, that will not happen.

What about my question about the editors of national newspapers?

I do not have the names.

Can the Taoiseach give them to us and tell us who met who?

I can find out for the Deputy but I honestly do not know.

Will he give a commitment to furnish us with the details?

I will give a commitment to inquire. I do not see any reason why I have to answer that question. Maybe there are reasons.

It is about transparency. We have been dragging out information for the past five months on this.

If the Deputy puts it down as a written parliamentary question, I am sure he will get an answer.

It is unfair to put this into a conspiracy theory category. If something looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, I tend to think it is a duck. Much of the advertising done looked like editorial.

I have sought for the Committee of Public Accounts to look at the business case for this unit from a value for money point of view and that the Secretaries General of both the Departments of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Taoiseach attend it.

Will the Taoiseach provide details on the contracts under which the people in the unit were appointed? That is an important issue. He may well not have it to hand but I would appreciate if he could come back to us with that information. There is a blurring of lines in this. There is a process by which somebody goes through public appointments. It is not readily obvious that this happened in this instance.

To reiterate the question put by Deputy Howlin, if the Sinn Féin motion is passed by this House, will the Taoiseach accept that, will he respect that and will he act in accordance with it?

I also think the Taoiseach should respect the will of this House in this regard and he should answer the question on the position if the motion is passed. In passing, and I genuinely do not mean to be glib in this, if the Taoiseach is somewhat credibly saying that people should not make stuff up - I do not think the queries about the strategic communications unit are that, as they are genuine concerns about politicisation - he might also indicate some regret over making stuff up himself, as it would appear, when he was in Washington telling stories on the international stage about favours done or apparently done-----

We are getting into something that is not envisaged by the question.

Yes, but the Taoiseach cannot, on the one hand, say people should not make stuff up and then go to Washington and make stuff up, and then subsequently deny it.

What I will do is take into account the vote on the motion when it happens and I will also look at the review that is being carried out by the Secretary General to the Government. I think the right thing for the Opposition parties to do would have been to wait for the review before tabling the motion. It would be the correct procedure if the review is under way to wait for that review to be done, particularly if it is going to be done in a few weeks, and after that to table the motion. I suppose it was a political move to pre-empt that by tabling the motion in advance of the review, even though the review is already under way. That is just politics. It was a political tactic and I can live with that.

On conspiracy theories, every theory is not a conspiracy theory but there have been plenty of them. The Deputies can check the record from yesterday and I hope they will have a laugh reading some of the bizarre conspiracy theories that some Deputies came up with yesterday, even involving Donald Trump in all of this, which was one of the odder ones. A conspiracy theory is when you put two and two together and get 22, and there has been a bit of that, or when you join the dots and come up with a total fantasy. Conflation, of course, is where you take something related to a different campaign, like, for example, Creative Ireland, which was about local festivals and local arts events, and was a campaign that predated the SCU, and then assume it is the same for a totally different campaign. That is conflation.