Monday 22 April 2019

Taoiseach to scrap his 'Big Brother' media monitoring unit

Fionnan Sheahan Political Editor

THE end is nigh for the Taoiseach's controversial media watchers after years of being compared to George Orwell's Big Brother and "Cold War listening posts".

The Government's in-house information service on the media, which costs nearly €350,000 a year to run, is on the verge of being scrapped, the Irish Independent has learned.

The work of the infamous Communications Unit is being privatised as part of the cost-cutting savings drive in the civil service.

The Government is putting out a tender looking for a private company to carry out all its media monitoring and press-cuttings service.

The change will not affect the Government Press Office, to which the Communications Unit reports.

Apart from the office in the Taoiseach's department, it is believed that all other departments pay to have similar work done at an unknown cost.

The plan is to do away with a lot of this duplication by centralising this function and getting it done by an outside firm.

The Government is going to test the waters by seeing what prices come back for what will be a highly lucrative contract.

Working from Government Buildings for 18 hours a day, the unit monitors the media by trawling through radio reports and newspaper stories.

Beavering away from 7am over three shifts, the six dedicated civil servants of the Communications Unit read the national newspapers, listen to radio news bulletins and talk shows, watch TV news bulletins and then summarise the points raised for ministers.

Criticised

Since being set up in 1997, after Fianna Fail came to power, the work of the Communications Unit has frequently been criticised by opposition parties.

The total cost of the unit since its establishment 11 years ago is now just short of €3m and it costs €27,000 a month to operate.

Aside from frequent comparisons to the all-seeing Big Brother from George Orwell's novel 'Nineteen Eighty-Four', the Communications Unit has attracted some colourful descriptions over the years.

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny branded the unit "those Rumpelstilskins of political spin who turn pure straw into gold" and said it was responsible for helping the Government to "rewrite history".

Labour's Pat Rabbitte said the unit is a "Fianna Fail espionage unit funded by the taxpayer to monitor what its political opponents are saying about Fianna Fail".

Former Socialist TD Joe Higgins once said it was the "Taoiseach's personal listening post" as he pointed out that during the Cold War the CIA had listening posts throughout the Soviet Union.

Last night, a spokesman said the Department of the Taoiseach had issued a tender for a centralised Government contract for the provision of a press-cutting and media-monitoring service for all government departments.

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