Opinion

If the News Media's Credibility Weren't for Sale, the Government Couldn't Buy It

Sam Tranum portrait
Sam Tranum

Sam Tranum is deputy editor of Dublin Inquirer. He's been a newspaper reporter, a newspaper editor, an assistant professor of journalism, an author and a book editor, among other things. You can follow him @samtranum.

Back in February, there was uproar in the Dáil and in the media about the revelation that, as the Times‘s  Ireland edition memorably put it in a headline, the “Government ‘paid for good news stories’ over Ireland 2040 plan”. But why was anyone surprised?

Almost all news organisations in Ireland run “good-news stories” paid for by advertisers. And the government, which is the largest advertiser in the country by some measures, routinely buys them to spread its messages – about Ireland 2040, healthy living, self-employment, and more.

It’s not just Ireland, either. Advertisers regularly pay for good-news stories to run in media around the world. Look at the UK last week: “George Osborne’s London Evening Standard sells its editorial independence to Uber, Google and others – for £3 million,” wrote Open Democracy UK.

In print and online media, these advertisements are usually made to look like news articles, and are variously called “native advertising“, “advertorials”, “partnerships”, and other euphemisms. Some are clearly labelled as ads, some are vaguely labelled, and some are not labelled at all and look just like news articles.

The extent of the government’s use of such paid-for “articles” to spread its messages about Ireland 2040 and other policies was made clear in dozens of emails and other documents released late last month, under the Freedom of Information Act.

The documents also include scripts for radio spots that the government paid to have run on stations around the country, giving its view of how Project Ireland 2040 would affect each area.

However, in an email chain about these, the managing director of the company that the government had hired to arrange them cautioned: “We do not want ads, nor are we legally able to have ads on radio […]”. More on that later.

The SCU and Ireland 2040

Back in mid-February, the government launched its Ireland 2040 national development plan with great fanfare. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s Strategic Communications Unit was behind this launch.

“The SCU was tasked by the Government with developing a major national communications plan for Project 2040,” according to Secretary General to the Irish Government Martin Fraser’s review of the SCU.

“This included a national launch, regional events, written material, audio-visual content, advertising, media partnerships and paid advertorials. The amount allocated to this from within the SCU budget was €1.5m (although not all of that has been spent),” the report says.

The SCU worked with a company called PHD Media, which then contracted media groups Independent News Media (INM) and Mediaforce. Among them, these organisations arranged advertising on everything from Facebook to the RTÉ Player, Twitter to regional newspapers, cinema screens to radio stations.

The SCU produced media packs explaining the government’s view of Ireland 2040, and highlighting for local media what projects it contained for their regions. PHD passed this on through INM and Mediaforce to specific media organisations, and they created the advertisements.

The contract that PHD entered into with INM says it was to “cover in depth Ireland 2040”, according to extracts appended to a 26 March report by Elizabeth Canavan, of the Department of the Taoiseach. “Using its network of national and local titles, INM will explain the contents of the plan and its impact on real people’s lives in an editorial partnership.”

Amusingly, the contract follows this up by saying, “Editorial independence will be maintained at all times.” What exactly do the people who wrote this contract think “editorial independence” is?

When the biggest advertiser in the country, which is also the government, pays you to write about their latest plan or policy, and sends you a briefing on how to go about it, you do not have editorial independence.

Peter McGuire, identifying himself as a journalist with the Irish Times, emailed PHD Ireland Managing Director Jason Nebenzahl on 16 February, explaining that he’d been asked to do “an overview piece on the Irish National Development Plan – this is commissioned as a commercial report through the Taoiseach’s office”.

On 21 February, McGuire got back in touch, writing to Nebenzahl: “I’m doing a second feature on the National Development Plan … My brief: Project Ireland 2040 ‘seeks to move away from the current, developer-led, business-as-usual pattern of development, to one informed by the needs and requirements of society’.”

Maybe the Irish Times didn’t have that same clause as INM about editorial independence in its contract?

All in a Tizzy

If you’ll remember, Fianna Fáil TD Micheál Martin assailed the government on this whole Ireland 2040 issue back on 21 February, when he said in the Dáil that:

“[T]he Taoiseach must accept that there is something ethically dubious at the very least about one arm of the his Department seeking coverage for so-called exclusives about the plan while another is discussing major advertising spending with the same media outlets.”

The Times reported this and much more under its headline about the government buying good-news stories, and then followed up with a series of reports digging deeper into how it had conducted the Ireland 2040 campaign. Other media soon rowed in behind Martin and the Times.

There was much discussion of whether the adverts the SCU was buying with taxpayers’ money were being used to benefit Fine Gael politically. Canavan’s report looks in detail at who was featured in the photos and quotations in the good-news stories the SCU bought in regional and national print media.

Some 82 percent of regional newspapers, the report found, did not include photos of politicians at all, “or only included a photo of the Cabinet or the Taoiseach at the launch of Project 2040”.

In the regional newspapers that did include politicians, nearly every single one was Fine Gael. When the papers included quotations from “political figures”, nearly every single political figure was Fine Gael.

In the national press, the story was much the same: photographs and quotations that featured politicians mainly featured Fine Gael politicians. (For details, check pages 12–14 of the report.)

You can see how Martin and other politicians from other parties might have felt left out.

However, writing from the Department of the Taoiseach, Canavan found that “the relevant editors have confirmed categorically that the choice of photos and quotes was determined by them at a local level (i.e. ‘in-house’) and was not subject to any outside influence”.

I am not sure Canavan understands how influence works. But I imagine everyone involved in the selling, buying and producing the Ireland 2040 good-news stories did.

“When added together the government of Ireland is a top three spender (and often number 1) in all media),” wrote Nebenzahl of PHD, in a 25 January email to John Concannon, director of the Taoiseach’s Strategic Communications Unit.

Attached to Nebenzahl’s message are lists of top advertisers for January to November 2017 in various categories. The first list is for “Top Brand Advertiser” and it is headed by the government, which beats out Sky, P&G, Lidl, Diageo, Aldi, Eir, SuperValu, Tesco, and Vodafone. 

And the SCU was planning a whole series of major campaigns for 2018, including Ireland 2040, plus campaigns it was calling Healthy Ireland, National Children’s Hospital, Global Ireland, Rebuilding Ireland, Creative Ireland, and Brexit, according to Fraser’s report. Canavan’s report also mentioned campaigns called Education Action Plan, Bliain Na Gaeilge, Self-Employed, and Irish Aid.

The savvy people who work in the advertising departments of media organisations, which feed on ad revenue, do not need to be told explicitly to try to please the party in power when the government is the top brand advertiser in the country, passing out millions of euro of advertising contracts.

Ads in Disguise

According to these documents released by the Department of the Taoiseach’s Strategic Communications Unit, everyone seems to think that these good-news stories were properly labelled as adverts. I disagree.

It’s true they were labelled with variations of “In partnership with Project Ireland 2040, an initiative of the Government of Ireland”. But what does “in partnership” mean? Why don’t they just say, “Paid for by the Government of Ireland”?

Also, even the ambiguous labelling that is included can blend right into the background of these pages, which are designed to look like regular news pages.

Browsing images of these good-news stories on the Irish Newspaper Archives, you can see that they use the same fonts and styles and layouts that real news articles do. Above, you can see a real news layout in the Irish Independent on the left, and a paid-for “news” layout in the Irish Times on the right (photo by Mark Tighe).

Sometimes, a newspaper would feature paid-for and not-paid-for articles about Ireland 2040 on consecutive pages in the same edition, one nearly blending right into the other. For example, below, you can see pages 12, 13 and 14 of the Meath Chronicle‘s 24 February edition.

Page 12 is labelled “National Development Plan”, page 13 says “Brought to you in partnership with project Ireland 2040” (translation: paid for by the government), and page 14 says “Project Ireland 2040”.

The first two are paid for by the government. The third is not.

Blurring the line between paid-for messages and independent journalism undermines the credibility of the news media. It can leave readers wondering, for example, whether what they are reading is a (relatively) disinterested evaluation of government policy, or just unfiltered government spin.

On the radio, there was even further confusion. The scripts for the radio spots read like this: “Project Ireland 2040 is a Government initiative to make Ireland a better country … Cork will receive investment and development in the following areas … This initiative is brought to you by Cork’s 96FM, in partnership with Project Ireland 2040.”

That’s from a mid-February email chain between Nebenzahl of PHD and Elaine Rockett of Urban Media, which represents Irish radio stations. On 16 February, Nebenzahl writes:

“Key is that the copy is from stations but labelled as in partnership with the government of Ireland. We do not want ads, nor are we legally able to have ads on radio and so nothing produced can be misconstrued as an ad as this is not our intention. It is simply sharing content that is relevant and important to a given area.”

This is a bunch of absolute nonsense. The government has paid to run these radio spots, and it has provided briefs on what they should include, and its agent (PHD) is commenting on the scripts before they run. These are obviously adverts.

Nebenzahl had not replied by the time this was published to two emails asking for clarification on why he thought they were not legally allowed to have ads on radio. And the Department of the Taoiseach had not replied to an email asking whether it thought it had been breaking the law by running the Ireland 2040 radio spots.

However, a spokesperson for the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland explained that there is a prohibition “on advertising directed towards a political end”, and that this “applies not only to political parties but also to adverts which are intended to support or opposes changes in Irish law or proposals of governmental bodies regardless of whether the advertiser is a political party or not”.

This prohibition, the BAI spokesperson explained, “does not prohibit government bodies from advertising per se, only adverts directed towards a political end”.

All this aside, it is clear that the government has been paying the news media to run good-news stories that are presented quite a lot like independent journalism, in order to trade on what credibility the news media have left in an effort to get the public to believe their message.

Again, this is not just about Ireland 2040 campaign, or about the government. This is standard practice in advertising today. News organisations are selling off their credibility for advertising cash.

It’s not really the government’s fault if it buys what’s on offer. But the organisations that are selling this are undermining the long-term sustainability of the news media.

People won’t bother to read, listen or watch us anymore if they don’t think they can believe anything we’re telling them.

(Just for the record, Dublin Inquirer does not publish paid-for “articles” of any kind – no “native advertising”, no “advertorials”, no “sponsored content”, etc. In fact, we don’t do much advertising at all. Our revenue comes primarily from our readers, through subscriptions.)

 

Comments

  1. Log in to leave a comment.

Advertisements

We use cookies to allow visitors to log in to our website and read our articles. We don't use any third-party cookies. By clicking 'I accept' or continuing to use this site, you consent to the use of cookies.

I accept