Sunday 11 December 2016

FG used €1.4m of public cash for research on voters' moods

Published 19/01/2016 | 02:30

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The former adviser said there was an increasing trend towards trying to influence debate through 'social media tricks and tweets' Photo: PA

Fine Gael has spent huge sums of taxpayers' money on researching the mood of the electorate since coming to power.

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An analysis of annual declarations made by the party shows over €1.4m was spent on research into public opinion on political issues during its first four years in coalition.

The cash used by the party for "research and public sampling" came from the taxpayer-funded parliamentary activities allowance. It is one of two funds - the electoral act fund being the other - through which €13.8m in taxpayers' cash is distributed to political parties and Independent TDs and senators annually.

Filings made to the Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo) also indicate Fine Gael has a sophisticated media monitoring operation, with the party expending significantly more resources on this than any of the other political organisations.

The Sipo filings show €458,000 was spent on research and qualitative and quantitative "public sampling" in 2011, the year the party came to power.

Some €437,000 was spent under the same heading in 2012, €332,000 in 2013 and €202,694 in 2014. Figures for 2015 will not be disclosed until later this year.

No other party has declared such large scale research.

Large sums have also been spent by Fine Gael on media monitoring and training for its TDs in dealing with the media.

Almost €280,000 went on media training for its TDs and ministers during the first four years of the Coalition.

Figures show at least €100,000 was also spent on media monitoring services over a three-year period.

A veteran former political press adviser told the Irish Independent that monitoring media output was something parties divert a lot of resources to. "It is a huge part of the operation these days and a normal part of staff routines," he said.

"They devote a lot of staff to it, depending on how many they have. Sometimes the media monitoring is contracted to an outside service."

The former adviser said there was an increasing trend towards trying to influence debate through "social media tricks and tweets".

"There are people with throwaway mobile phones texting radio shows," he said.

"This is how you get perfectly crafted pieces of tabloid criticism sent in at the end of a radio show from Mick in Tullamore. Very pithy and to the point and frequently critical or negative of the party's opponents."

He said the bigger political parties also devote a lot of energy to monitoring the local media. "They try to discern patterns or themes that are coming through, which could be considered a bit below the line and secondary to the main election issues," he said.

"These are things that need to be spoken to. There are things like septic tanks and local bus services which may not be an issue nationally, but are very much so locally."

In addition to the spending specifically linked to public opinion research, media training and media monitoring, Fine Gael spent €80,000 last year on consultancy fees under the heading "human resources, media, IT and PR management".

A further €139,000 was spent on the party's website and social media from the publicly funded allowances.

In contrast, Labour declared relatively little spending on public relations work, with sums ranging from €34,000 to €77,000 being spent annually on "public relations and printing", according to Sipo filings.

People Before Profit spent just €500 on social media training and a further sum of €2,000 on marketing and social media consultants in 2014.

Fianna Fáil declared spending of €57,500 on its website and social media in 2014.

Irish Independent

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