Tuesday, 18 February 2003
Dáil Eireann Debate
4. Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked the Taoiseach the role and function of the communications unit in his Department; the projected cost of the unit in 2003; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3774/03]
It is estimated that the total projected cost in 2003 for the communications unit in my Department will be €273,471, excluding any subsequent benchmarking award. The total cost for 2002 was €256,335. Some €108,941 of the 2003 figure and €97,218 of the 2002 figure is a direct cost to my Department with the remainder being borne by the five other Departments who have staff seconded to the unit at an average cost of €32,906 each in 2003 and €31,827 each in 2002.
The unit provides a media information service to Ministers and their Departments. It furnishes news updates and transcripts which ensure that Departments are kept informed in a fast and efficient manner of any relevant news developments. In this way, Departments are able to provide a better service to the public. The communications unit works an 18 hour day based on a flexible rota of three working shifts. The unit is staffed by six established civil servants, five of whom are seconded from other Departments. The work of the unit means Departments have greatly reduced their use of external companies and ensure they no longer duplicate work such as transcripts and tapes. It is conservatively estimated that, in a full year, the communications unit saves Departments approximately €175,000.
Mr. Kenny: Can the Taoiseach confirm that the Departments have ceased the practice of paying commercial agencies for the production of transcripts? What was the overall expenditure on media relations, photographic services and advertising for 2001? Figures given last year seem to indicate that, in the Taoiseach's Department,  some €30,940 was spent on photographic services even though the Taoiseach is well enough known around the country. Any time this question is raised, the Taoiseach is at pains to point out that this saves money and is good value. Will the Taoiseach comment on those points?
The Taoiseach: To the best of my knowledge, the contract arrangements in place for all Departments for using outside services has ceased. They may seek transcripts or tapes of programmes on some occasions that would not be covered. The communications unit covers a range of programmes and media outlets, but not all of them. That practice saves a substantial amount of money.
I gave information in response to questions on photographic services last week to a Deputy. I am not sure what the amount involved covered. I do not believe it covered the taking of photographs of me as enough people already do that. I have not followed the practice of some sporting organisations of charging for that.
Mr. Kenny: My addition may not be absolutely correct, but it seems that, excluding advertising, the cost of media relations and photographic services for all Departments amounted to more than €9 million in 2001, which seems an extraordinary figure. Given that we are living in uncertain economic times, perhaps the projection of Government and Government faces should be seriously examined. If we are to lead by example, then example should be given from the top down.
The Taoiseach: I agree fully that we should get the best value for money. Another Fine Gael Deputy tabled a question to me regarding the full cost of all advertising in the national media – whether on RTE, TV3, local radio or local newspapers – for my Department. The cost involved is approximately €280,000. I checked this morning to ascertain how that amount of money could have been spent in this area. I noted that approximately €240,000 was spent on the Forum for Europe. When the cost of some of the statutory advertisements is excluded, there is almost nothing left. Deputy Kenny should check the details of some of the figures and he would realise  that the cost involved is not as excessive as might be thought from merely noting the global figure.
Can the Taoiseach outline what role, if any, the communications unit in his Department has in relation to the important area of the North of Ireland and the peace process? Are staff in the unit tasked specifically with addressing this important aspect of the Taoiseach's work? Does the unit address the regularly repeated erroneous reports that appear in the media in relation to these important areas? Can the Taoiseach clarify whether the communications unit also addresses the British media or if that is a function of the Department of Foreign Affairs or the Government press office? What are the lines of demarcation in that area?
On a lighter note, the Taoiseach referred to a question in relation to photographs. There was a significant increase in the expenditure on photographs last year as against 2001. Was that increase due to the Taoiseach having become more photogenic or was it due to the fact that there was a general election in 2002? The Taoiseach might share that information with the House.
In reply to the Deputy's first question, the communications unit has no function whatsoever in either commenting on or having any influence over any of the media. It merely reports what the media are saying, and it provides that service not only for Ministers but for a large number of agencies across Government. The Government press secretariat deals with both the international and domestic press, and the communications unit has no such function.
Mr. Rabbitte: Does the Taoiseach agree that expenditure on this kind of presentation to the media is out of hand. What exactly are 11 staff  doing in communicating to the media from the Taoiseach's office? What is this business of providing a service to Ministers? According to an article in Ireland on Sunday, the Tánaiste has five media staff in her office. According to the article, every Minister—
Mr. Rabbitte: What service does the Taoiseach's office provide to Ministers who, according to the Ireland on Sunday article, were staffed to the astonishing tune of €20 million in 2002? That is €20 million to spin the Government's line to the public, including €250,000 on photographs alone. How can that be justified? Most people outside the House do not understand that most front benchers in this House operate on a man-and-a-dog basis. They have no back-up, aside from a poorly paid secretary. That is the entire back-up for front bench spokespersons in this House. How can the Taoiseach justify the imbalance between the resources he allocates to the Executive and the resources that are allocated to the Opposition?
Commitments entered into by the Government and, expressly, by the Minister for Finance, in terms of providing an element of research back-up for the Opposition have essentially been reneged upon. We will now start from a baseline—
An Ceann Comhairle: In fairness to Deputies Boylan and Kenny, whom I ruled out of order for making statements, the same Standing Order must be applied to every Member of the House, and I ask Deputy Rabbitte to confine himself to asking a question.
Mr. Rabbitte: That is as it should be. I agree with you, a Cheann Comhairle. I ask the Taoiseach whether it is untenable to continue to run Dáil Éireann by allocating huge resources to the Government side of the House to spin the Government's position while leaving people on this side of the House dependent on a secretary who also has to support the TD in his or her public representative role of serving a constituency. Is it not the case that every Minister has a staff of approximately five or six people in his or her constituency office? This is not acceptable and cannot go on. As Deputy Kenny said—
The Taoiseach: There is a staff of six in the communications unit and it is a Civil Service function, as I have pointed out many times in this House. Its role is not to spin on behalf of the Government – if anything, it gives the media spin to the Government. It reports what the media are saying on various issues, so the Government is not spending enormous amounts  of money on putting out its own message. If one follows the logic put forward by Deputies Rabbitte and Kenny, this is a useful service.
I know that Deputy Rabbitte worked in the Department he talks about and he knows that the five people in that Department constitute the press office of the Department. It is not correct to portray the press office of any Department as serving the individual Minister of that Department—
The Taoiseach: I am afraid the Deputy does not know. The Deputy talked about the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. Members of the press and others who wish to seek information about that Department contact the Department. That is how they work, and the Deputy knows that is true because that is the way it worked when he was in office.
The Taoiseach: Most Ministers in this Administration do not deal personally with staff in their departmental press offices. That was also the case in previous administrations. I do not think Ministers would deal with them. They may have their own staff—
The Taoiseach: The number of media outlets has grown, as has the number of queries Departments receive. I cannot let Deputy Rabbitte get away with saying there are no resources or funding for others. That is not the case and I do not need to remind the Deputy of the resources that are available to the Labour Party that were not available a few years ago. These resources are open to the party for research purposes and I do not need to tell the Deputy of the substantial funding it receives.
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: In my question to the Taoiseach I highlighted the erroneous reports on the peace process and asked whether the communications unit highlighted the media spin and brought it to his and his colleague's attention. The Taoiseach said the unit had “no function whatsoever” in this regard. His subsequent answers clearly indicate that it has a function. I presume the communications unit does not ignore all matters on the North of Ireland and the peace process. It must have some function. Will the Taoiseach revisit the answer he gave me in the first instance and address what the communications unit does about erroneous reports? What steps, if any, has he put in place in his Department to address the continual negative and inaccurate spin that is often applied by sections of the media hostile towards the vision of the Good Friday Agreement? Does the communications unit in the Department of the Taoiseach look at and address the detail in this area in the British media?
If we are not all to get the staff required to address the problems highlighted by Deputy Rabbitte and others, why does the Taoiseach not share with the parties and the Technical Group the information the communications unit provides? That would overcome the problem and it would be an equitable approach.
The Taoiseach: The Deputy asked me if the communications unit has a function in amending or ordering action on what he termed “erroneous reporting” on Northern Ireland. The communications unit does not carry out any of those functions. It has no role in this. If there is erroneous or inaccurate reporting, or something in between, the unit will report it. The Government Information Service, which is also part of my Department, deals with local and national press. I draw a distinction between that service and the communications unit.
Mr. Naughten: In light of the fact that the Taoiseach spoke repeatedly about value for money, will he define what services are provided to the Government? He said a large number of State agencies are involved. Are all involved or do some hire private organisations to provide such services? If that is so, does the Taoiseach not agree it is a duplication of the service provided by the communications unit and is not value for money? Does the unit also monitor and report on debates in this House and the Upper House? Do photographic services include air brushing?
The communications unit deals with Departments, is part of Government and does not deal with other agencies. It monitors only the content of the national media, not the Houses. If something is reported in newspapers about the Houses, it will pick it up as a headline, but it does not report on them. It has no role other than with the national media.
Mr. Naughten: In light of the Taoiseach's response, would it not be more logical and better value for money for all State agencies to be serviced by the communications unit rather than their hiring the services of private organisations which is a clear duplication of the services provided to the Government?
Mr. Boyle: If the work of the communications unit is benign, is the Taoiseach prepared to have  the most recent report to his Department made available in the Oireachtas Library so that Members can see the work of the unit and how it assists the business of Government?
The Taoiseach: The unit has already received freedom of information requests. If the Deputy looked at his newspaper this morning, he will know what information we receive because the unit summarises that news. Six or seven years ago, Departments obtained the transcripts and tapes of news programmes and other events. This is now done by the communications unit. That is its function – to summarise the daily and hourly national news.
Mr. Rabbitte: I am still unclear as to the purpose of the communications unit. The Taoiseach said it is to spin the media to the Government, which is at least a new concept. Why can Ministers not spin the media to themselves? They have personal spindoctors at considerable expense to the State. Why is an office in the Department of the Taoiseach needed to tell Ministers' spindoctors what the media is spinning on a given morning? Why can the spindoctors not do it? I fail to understand the point of the exercise. When multiplied by 15 for Ministers and 17 for Ministers of State, it is costing the taxpayers a fortune.
The Taoiseach: The unit provides a media information service to Ministers and Departments. It furnishes news updates and transcripts to ensure Departments are kept informed in a fast and efficient manner of any relevant new developments. In this way, Departments are able to provide a better service to the public. They operate for 18 hours per day on three working shifts. As the Deputy knows, this is not what happens in other Departments, where there is not such a range of people. If the Deputy really wants it, I can give him details of how many people were engaged as advisers and in media services five years ago, compared with now. I could do that, but I have been declining to do so.
Mr. Durkan: Given that the Taoiseach referred to the advice of the media on Government performance, how does this communications unit operate? Do the media come to the communications unit for advice or to give advice? How often does that happen? Does the communications unit go to the media to offer advice or to look for inspiration? How often does that happen, if at all? At these times of financial revision and restriction, does the Taoiseach consider that the funding of the communications unit and the various departmental communications units might be better spent on the schools building programme, services for people with disabilities or a host of other areas that are crying out for financial input at present?
The Taoiseach: Those working in the communications unit do not go talking to anybody. They take what is in the national and some of the local media and portray the headlines and data as it comes across the airwaves to Ministers, Ministers of State and departmental heads who would not normally be listening to those programmes or are unable to listen to them all at the same time, so that they are up to date with what is happening and are able to respond to matters. They can supply detailed transcripts of interviews and matters of importance, when required. That saves conservatively about €175,000, which was the amount being spent about six years ago. The entire cost at that time is probably now saved by this service.
Mr. J. Higgins: During the Cold War, the CIA had listening posts all around the former Soviet Union. Is the communications unit the Taoiseach's personal listening post as far as the Irish media are concerned? Is its function really to see that its Government masters are not in its view slighted or misrepresented by the media? Has it a specific instruction in regard to radio programmes, for example, to immediately alert the Taoiseach or another Department if it feels a Minister has been slighted so that he or she can retaliate quickly?
Is the communications unit different from the spin doctoring and propaganda unit of the Taoiseach? Is there a division of labour between the listeners on the one hand and those who spin out the Taoiseach's line by making lengthy telephone calls late at night before the Sunday newspapers come out, etc., on the other? Is that a separate unit? Is the Taoiseach's figure of €273,000 for the six staff really a gross underestimate of the cost to his Department of the whole communications business, not just the listening but the spinning as well?
The Taoiseach: I have already provided the information the Deputy requested. The communications unit is not involved in activities other than reporting and summarising what has been listed. A detailed summary of newspaper headlines and some 7 a.m. radio news headlines  is faxed to the homes of Ministers and Ministers of State each morning and an electronic copy of it is made available to more than 100 users throughout the Departments at 7.30 a.m. The main news bulletins are summarised throughout the day. Summaries of “Morning Ireland”, the lunchtime news, the evening and 9 o'clock television news programmes, current affairs programmes, “Prime Time” and “Questions and Answers” are also available.
The communications unit's role is confined to reporting the media in a more efficient way than would be the case if every Department used separate services, as they did previously. I do not give political direction to the individuals involved, nor do I have to. They merely prepare the report and send it out to 100 individuals across the agencies.
Mr. Allen: I expected “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” and “You're a Star” to feature on the list. On a serious note, is the information gathered by the communications unit transmitted directly or indirectly to the press offices of the Fianna Fáil Party or the Progressive Democrats Party, or to their respective backbench Deputies?
The Taoiseach: No, it is a service provided for the Government. The unit has no involvement whatsoever with any Fianna Fáil or Progressive Democrats offices or backbenches. It is a Government service which is provided only to Ministers and Ministers of State and the departmental agencies I mentioned.
Mr. Rabbitte: I repeat my question to the Taoiseach. How can he stand here with a straight face and suggest that the purpose of the communications unit is not quintessentially political? Its purpose is to kill off stories in the media concerning issues raised by community organisations, trade unions or Opposition spokespersons.
Mr. Rabbitte: I apologise, Sir, and will do my best to correct myself. Is it not the case that the purpose of the communications unit is to kill off legitimate criticism of the Government and target people in the media with an overpowering army of spin doctors on the Government's behalf? The Taoiseach has more spin doctors running his personal office than Louis Walsh has promoting his latest pop group.
The Taoiseach: I totally reject that accusation. The reality is the communications unit takes what is presented in the media every day and reports it. It does not have a political nature. I do not see how reporting what the national media is  reporting in a succinct way so that people are informed of what is being said and what is going on is killing off anything. People cannot listen to every programme. Even early in the morning most of the recipients of the report would be attending meetings. They receive an update of what is going on throughout the day. It is nothing more than good sense to communicate what it is happening in the outside world. I reject all the accusations.
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Does the Taoiseach agree that his summary of the role of the communications unit is a little like watching them, watching us? Does the remit of the communications unit extend beyond national radio, television and print media to local radio and newspaper coverage? Is it also the case that the articles and reportage highlighted does not always solely reflect on what Ministers and their respective parties are articulating or how it is being reported, but also on how the Opposition parties are raising issues, presenting their case and articulating their arguments? It comes down to—
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: I have asked a question which I hope the Taoiseach will answer and will conclude by asking a question he has not yet answered. Perhaps the Ceann Comhairle will be prepared to challenge the Taoiseach to explain the reason he does not answer questions as quickly as he challenges me when I do not ask them.
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Will the Taoiseach instruct the communications unit to provide the same service to everyone in the House on an equitable basis so that we can all know what its staff are reporting as they watch us and the Taoiseach watches them?
Mr. Gilmore: Will the Taoiseach make available the product of this thriving little industry to the public by way of the Internet? All these transcriptions ought to be capable of being posted on the Department's website. Will he agree to post on the Department's website the transcriptions, which I presume are conveyed electronically to the other Departments, and make them available to the public so that everybody can see what this latter day version of GCHQ is doing?
The Taoiseach: Deputy Ó Caoláin asked again if this is a case of somebody watching us watching them. As I have said about 40 times, it is merely  a summary of what is reported in the national newspapers and on radio.
The Taoiseach: They do not cover local papers. They pick up on one or two of the main local radio stations in Dublin but only in a limited way. They do not report anything about what Deputy Ó Caoláin or any other Member said. It is not a case of reporting what the Deputy said. They take no account of that whatsoever.
An Ceann Comhairle: Deputy Rabbitte, I ask you to resume your seat when the Chair is on his feet. I now ask you to withdraw the statement that the Chair is protecting the Government. I am asking you to withdraw that, Deputy.
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