Ethics watchdog urged to investigate 'Ireland 2040' publicity campaign

Fianna Fáil claim the approach could "corrupt our democratic process"

Ethics watchdog urged to investigate 'Ireland 2040' publicity campaign

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaking after the launch of Project Ireland 2040, 16-02-2018. Image: Michelle Devane/PA Wire/PA Images

Updated: 19.00

The leader of the opposition has claimed the Taoiseach's spin has the potential to corrupt democracy in Ireland.

Leo Varadkar has come under fire after allegations that his spin unit instructed regional papers to make ads for the Ireland 2040 plan look like real news.

That is something the Government denies, saying they gave the papers full editorial control.

It says the advertorials were clearly marked as being paid for by the State.

Mr Varadkar hit out at Fianna Fáil, saying they did the same thing with plans of theirs when they were in government.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin took issue with Fine Gael election candidates appearing in the coverage.

"It is not the function of government officials, or of any taxpayer-funded campaign, to advance the electoral fortunes of any political party.

"And it's about time you faced up to that: you have blurred the lines, you're going down a dangerous route - which ultimately has the potential to corrupt our democratic process itself".

The State’s ethics watchdog has been asked to investigate if the Government’s 2040 publicity campaign breached rules that bar civil servants from carrying out political work.

The Irish Times reports that Fianna Fáil has written to the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) calling for an investigation into whether the extensive advertising campaign breaks Civil Service rules or contravenes ethics legislation.

Meanwhile the Social Democrats have made a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland (ASAI) about the campaign.

Strategic communications unit

The campaign had a particular focus on cinema advertising and advertisements in the form of paid-for newspaper articles.

The Social Democrats have claimed it was in breach of the advertising code which calls for ads to be “legal, decent, honest and truthful.”

Many of the articles have promoted Government politicians, with some promoting non-office holders – leading opposition parties to warn that the campaign amounts to publicly funded political advertising for Fine Gael candidates.

The campaign was commissioned by the Government’s new strategic communications unit, which is made up of 15 civil servants.

The unit is run at an annual cost to the taxpayer of €5m.

Public Accounts Commission

On Monday Labour TD Alan Kelly called for the Department of the Taoiseach to come before the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) to face questioning over the outlay on the campaign.

"We need to discuss whether the deployment of a significant quantity of traditional and social media advertising by the Taoiseach's Department amounts to an improper use of public funds for political ends," he said.

"Media reports today and over the weekend show the lengths the Spin Unit have went to, to make sure that local newspapers were writing good news stories about the latest National Development Plan".

"It is not right that the Government are holding local media outlets in these type of strangleholds.

"Many of these pieces in local media have not been marked as advertorials, the question must be asked if these pieces go against the Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland’s guidelines on advertising.

"Consumers have a right to know if pieces in their local newspaper are paid advertorials. I will be writing to the ASAI to seek clarity on this."

Advertising campaign

In a statement, the Government said the media partnerships relating to the campaign were handled by third party media buying organisations.

It said these organisations were instructed that all content should be identified as being ‘In Partnership with the Government of Ireland’ or ‘In Association with the Government of Ireland.’

The statement said the Government supplied media organisations with "key information relating to the Project Ireland 2040" – but insisted the "editorial style was entirely a matter for each media organisation."

It said no spokespeople or Government backbenchers were recommended for interview, with decisions on who to ask for comment a matter for each news organisation.

Reporting from Sean Defoe, Michael Staines and Jack Quann