Ellen Coyne, The Times, February 23, 2018
Concerns have been raised about an “ethically dubious deal” between the government and national newspapers that involves journalists writing positive pieces about the Ireland 2040 plan.
The government’s strategic communications unit arranged for sponsored content to appear in local, regional and national newspapers including the Irish Independent and The Irish Times.
Last week, the cabinet travelled to Sligo to unveil the €116 billion national development plan to prepare for an estimated population growth of one million people over the next two decades. It set out spending plans for infrastructure, transport and housing.
It is understood that a number of journalists at Independent News and Media were asked to write positive news pieces, which could not include negative or critical content. The double-page advertorials stated they were done “in partnership with the government”.
Micheál Martin, the Fianna Fáil leader, claimed in the Dáil that it was “ethically dubious” for one part of the Department of the Taoiseach to be seeking media coverage for its scheme, which was launched last week, while the other was “discussing major advertising spending with the same media outlets”.
“There is an issue in terms of the health of our democracy and the ethical nature of the engagement of the taoiseach and the department in this,” Mr Martin said. “The blurring of the lines is genuinely worrying from a parliamentary democracy point of view. The taoiseach will say he is promoting the government, but the dogs on the street know he is using taxpayers’ money to promote Fine Gael politically.”
A spokesman for Independent News and Media said: “[Our] publications frequently enter into partnerships with a variety of organisations and events as do other major media organisations. In no way do these arrangements cross over with the news coverage of the subjects at hand. The content referred to is clearly marked at the top of the pages and online as being ‘in partnership’ to delineate it from our regular coverage.
Leo Varadkar told the Dáil this week: “I do not have any role in designing advertisements or deciding which medium is used and I am not consulted on this. I asked not to be consulted on it. I have also asked not to see any advertisements before they are placed and I do not see them before they are placed.”