Monday 26 September 2016

Too much gets lost in the wash in the endless spin-cycle of Budget

Published 18/10/2015 | 02:30

Taoiseach Enda Kenny
Taoiseach Enda Kenny

All the aces have been played. Only time will tell if the gamble of a 2016 election coupled with the double bluff of the highly political Budget 2016 will hit the jackpot for the Government or whether it is one roll of the dice too many.

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In terms of political propaganda, the Budget was a super spin-cycle of good news.

More leaked than any other in living memory, there were little if no surprises in it, good or bad.

Because so much of the detail of Budget 2016 graced our pages in advance, we were robbed of any semblance of the customary Budget day drama or colour. That is until action behind the scenes spilled out into the public domain.

We began to see a little more bit of what goes on behind the closed doors and got another fleeting glimpse of this Government's interactions with the media.

As Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin took their hot seats on the Sean O'Rourke show to field questions from the public, a "poor innocent" journalist wandered unwittingly into a parallel universe via the control centre of RTÉ's radio Budget coverage. In doing so, she got a rare glimpse of what happens between the phone calls from the public and what we actually hear on the airwaves.

 

Enter stage right a political spin doctor and the discourse descended into open verbal combat, which of course was denied by Government. It seems that all participants were so emotionally invested in the melee, that no one noticed the interloper in the room.

Top tip - if someone is carrying a spiral notebook and a pen, they are probably a journalist.

The fascination with what goes on in the sub-culture of political spin rarely abates. Revelations that official and political apparatchiks were allowed access to the control rooms revitalised interest.

It may seem like more pointless navel-gazing between the media and politicians, but these developments do bring into question some issues which should not be dismissed as handbags at dawn by hair-flicking PR types.

There is a fundamental question of control and access to information which keeps popping up and should be addressed. RTÉ is correct to say that there is normality to some of the events last week, but not all of them. Having been involved as press director with the Department of Finance in five separate budgets, I can tell you what "normally" happens.

In RTÉ, there are three rooms to note for this story. The first is the studio where the presenters and the ministers work their magic. The second is the "phone bank room" where calls from the public come in. And finally there is the "control room". This is the room where producers and programme makers sit. It is in the control room where the real decisions are made about who makes it to the airwaves with their stories and questions. The political advisor usually sits there observing but not interfering and certainly not participating.

The fact that a Government spin doctor was even sitting in the wrong room tells you a lot about their influence. Getting those questions in advance serves no purpose whatsoever unless the current batch of 'West Wing' wannabes have developed ways to telepathically communicate with ministers who are ensconced behind a glass partition with a big red light in front of it, screaming 'On Air'. This entire episode was a folly of muscle-flexing showmanship, and pointless.

There have always been departmental officials in the phone bank room. Those officials are from the Department of Finance, they are au fait with the minute detail of the Budget because they have helped to craft it.

Their primary aim is to inform the programme makers rather than the ministers; otherwise RTÉ would not want them there at all.

In the run-up to and during the programme, calls come in by the thousand.

Visiting officials can then advise, "Yes, this person has a particular case to make" or they may simply explain that an individual may have missed something significant that answers their questions. Let's face it, who would listen to an hour of any minister saying, "That's on page six."

It is also worth noting that officials do not just have a presence on Sean O'Rourke's show. Civil servants are littered throughout RTÉ throughout Budget day, to assist with technical questions and timings of information release. It is pre-agreed and long-standing practice to ensure that programmes and the public receive accurate information as soon as it is available.

Nowadays, with so much of the Budget released judiciously in advance, it is hard to believe that there was a time up to the latter part of the 1990s when the Budget speech was given out to press attending Leinster House on a page-by-page basis.

God forbid they would reveal any secret a moment before the minister had delivered the nuggets in the Dáil. Come back Phil Hogan, all is forgiven.

With the Taoiseach limiting his appearances to a series of one-to-one interviews, his approach to communicating with the public is looking increasingly staged. There is a very fine line between media management and over-stepping the acceptable boundaries of control.

The wider question must be about accessing the people and information that people deserve.

In testing boundaries, the Government is building a hostile media pack which will make for an interesting five-month lead-in to the General Election, a game of poker they are only destined to lose.

Irish Independent

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