Monday 16 September 2019

Informed sources reveal that Varadkar has put himself in a spin

The stories about a deal to restore the Stormont Executive must have come from somewhere, writes Gene Kerrigan

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Picture: PA
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Picture: PA
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

Last Wednesday, Leo Varadkar publicly rejected responsibility for those paid to speak anonymously on behalf of his Government. These "spin doctors" and their mouthpieces, paid agents of the Government, can now tell the media any nonsense they want to spread, with no ministerial responsibility for their actions.

The previous Wednesday, October 18, The Irish Times reported: "The Government believes that Sinn Fein's leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O'Neill, was ready to do a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party to restore the Stormont Executive but was blocked by senior party figures."

This was disturbing stuff. All the major parties are urging SF and the DUP to agree a resumption of the Northern Executive.

Now, we were being told that a deal between the party leaders was being sabotaged by shadowy people who presumably wish to prolong the instability. The finger was pointed at Gerry Adams.

The story implied that O'Neill was being undermined, from which the DUP might conclude there was no point negotiating with her.

A very serious revelation, at a crucial point in negotiations.

The Irish Times said its story came from "informed sources". It consisted of a "privately-expressed government view".

Prior to this, anonymous sources allegedly close to the Irish and British governments had claimed that an agreement on restarting the Executive was "imminent".

The reporters involved are experienced. They don't make things up. When they say "informed sources" they don't mean they met some fella in a bar who said he knew the inside story. It means they got the information from someone they know to have knowledge of what the Government knows and thinks about the Executive negotiations.

Reporters and newspapers publish such stories in good faith.

There are a lot of "informed sources". The Government employs an Information Service. And each department of State has its own press office.

The political parties have their press offices. And then, there are advisers and consultants and "sources close" to politicians, who brief the media off the record.

And, of course, there is now the Strategic Communications Unit, set up by Taoiseach Varadkar at substantial cost.

We don't know who exactly briefed The Irish Times and we would not expect the paper to reveal its sources.

Three possibilities:

Possibility A) The story was true. No one seems to believe that. Both SF and the DUP denied agreement was ever "imminent". In the Dail, Adams said the story was "untruthful, malicious and shameful". Varadkar did not repudiate that. When the dust settled, no one in politics or the media appears to have considered the "informed sources" to be telling the truth.

Possibility B) The government spinners knew it was untrue, but deliberately misinformed reporters and misled readers, for their own political purposes.

Possibility C) The government spinners are incompetents who can't tell truth from fantasy, who recklessly suck stories out of their thumbs.

Take your pick.

Adams pursued the matter in Dail questions. Varadkar, as is usual, evaded the issue rather than answer the questions he was asked. He lectured Sinn Fein on the need to come to an agreement with the DUP. He then boasted that he doesn't mince his words and said, "I am not going to account for government briefings".

Then, who does?

There are some who believe that anonymous "informed sources" have a role in conveying information to the public. Obviously, when someone on the inside is dissenting from the agreed line it would be naive to expect they would always go on the record.

But the routine attribution of "informed sources" is unnecessary and deceptive.

Statements from people paid to communicate the government view should be credited openly as such.

Now that the Taoiseach has disowned responsibility for a spin machine he continues to finance, any statement emanating from an anonymous government source has no more credibility than an anonymous Twitter account.

However unsatisfactory the "informed sources" practice might be, there was always an unspoken understanding between politicians and the media that it wouldn't be abused.

Last week, Taoiseach Varadkar made it clear that he takes no responsibility for any government media outlet, even if it peddles untrue stories. He just appoints these people and we just pay for them.

Sunday Independent

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