With most of the country focused on the exceptionally bad weather this week, scant attention has been paid by the general public to the controversial activities of the Strategic Communications Unit (SCU), the exorbitantly-funded press office of an Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar. According to a great investigative piece by Ellen Coyne in the Irish edition of the Times of London, the SCU arranged for some extraordinary deals with the local press during the mid-February launch of the Government’s much-hyped €116 billion national development plan, known as Ireland 2040.
Regional newspapers were instructed to make government advertorials look like independent stories and in some cases part of “the normal news cycle,” The Times can reveal.
Editors at several local titles raised concerns after they were instructed not to clearly mark as a commercial feature sponsored content about Ireland 2040, the national development plan.
A similar campaign for Creative Ireland, the government’s cultural programme, also banned newspapers from marking its adverts and said that newspapers would have covered the content anyway, The Times has learnt.
Leo Varadkar’s strategic communications unit is promoting Ireland 2040 in an intense campaign that includes sponsored content in national, regional and local newspapers as well as online publications and cinema adverts. Many of the sponsored articles were written by journalists…
The 15-person strategic communications unit (SCU) was set up by Mr Varadkar when he succeeded Enda Kenny as taoiseach. It is led by John Concannon, former head of Creative Ireland.
One local editor told The Times: “This is fake news. Newspapers are struggling and the government know that, so they’ve got us by the balls.”
The SCU spent around €1.5 million on the promotion of the plan in print and online media, using a well-placed advertisements agency to ensure that its PR statements appeared as regular news items in the struggling regional press, by-passing the slightly less malleable national titles. Many of these articles featured photos of Fine Gael ministers, TDanna, seanadóirí and councillors, consequently bending rules about party political advertising to breaking point. Notably, this work was kept separate from that of the mainstream Government Information Service (GIS), which runs all day-to-day communications concerning the Department of the Taoiseach, furthering the impression that the SCU is simply a team of tax-funded private spin doctors for Leo Varadkar.