'Government officials will be used to manipulate media/public'
...reveals a leaked Northern Ireland Office document. Brendan O'Neill reports on the stage-managed selling of the peace deal
As the world welcomed the Northern Ireland peace deal in April, one thing played on my mind: where did those children outside Stormont castle come from? Just hours before the deal was agreed a group of Catholic and Protestant schoolchildren appeared before the cameras on the steps of Stormont, singing 'carry on, carry on', as inside Unionist, nationalist and republican politicians exhausted themselves in the search for agreement.
Of course the children did not turn up spontaneously they were 'supplied' by Belfast radio dj Tommy Sands, who has a reputation for staging this kind of stunt. Earlier in the week Sands himself had been refused entry into Stormont on the grounds that the negotiations were too serious to be disrupted by his shenanigans. But when he returned with a group of doe-eyed children the gates of Stormont were flung open and everything came to a standstill, as politicians vied to have their pictures taken with the fresh-faced youth of Northern Ireland.
This story is typical of the way in which the New Labour government and its allies have stage-managed the peace process in order to sell 'The Agreement' to the people of Northern Ireland. The peace deal has been promoted through a campaign of spindoctoring, media manipulation, blackmail and censorship.
On 26 March, as the negotiations were entering the final stages, the Democratic Unionist Party leaked a British government document on selling the peace deal, entitled 'Information strategy'. Written by Tom Kelly, formerly of the BBC and now director of communications at Mo Mowlam's Northern Ireland Office, the document outlines the government's strategy for getting the right result in the 'most crucial election campaign in Northern Ireland's history' - the 22 May referendum on the peace deal. Despite being under-reported and played down in the British press, the document is a shocking read.
'During the next ten weeks', writes Kelly, 'we need to convince the Northern Ireland public both of the importance of what is at stake, and also convince them that not only is agreement possible, but they have a vital role to play in endorsing it'. The document suggests that the government's message should be 'clear, simple and direct' and advises ministers to 'keep repeating it at every opportunity': 'the momentum towards an agreement and the people's decision in a referendum must become a central part of every message government sends, whether the context is the economy, health or even agriculture.'
However, the document's author is aware that if government ministers keep ramming 'key lines' and the 'right message' down people's throats, many might gag on it: 'it could be seen as "big government" imposing its views, which would be entirely counterproductive.' To resolve this problem the document suggests enlisting the help of community representatives, church leaders, women's groups and, most importantly, the media, to help push the government agenda. 'This will keep the message fresh by introducing different faces delivering the message.'
The NIO document then proposes a campaign of blatant media manipulation designed to flood Northern Ireland with positive stories about the peace deal. As the accompanying commentary, also leaked, bluntly states, 'government officials will be used to manipulate media/public'. The document itself proposes 'effective monitoring' of media coverage so that ministers and civil servants will be better placed to intervene and set the agenda:
'We will wish to put more emphasis on the briefing of media people generally...We will be particularly anxious to use this as a means of exerting some influence on the content and quality of media coverage. The many weekly newspapers around Northern Ireland offer considerable scope for us to present our message, and the editors of these papers should feature in the efforts of ministers to cultivate the media' (my italics).
Influential media people should be 'cultivated' and coaxed into running with the official line that this agreement is the best thing to ever happen in Northern Ireland. The document refers to '10-12 current affairs broadcast programmes with which Information Service will liaise closely' and mentions important 'intelligence gleaned from informal contacts with key media people'. Kelly of the Northern Ireland Office ends on a proactive note: 'I will myself arrange a number of occasions on which I will bring together selective influential media people.'
Despite New Labour's claim that the peace deal was born of 'the People', in reality the 'key message' of the deal was agreed in the backrooms of the Northern Ireland Office while the negotiations were still taking place. A comprehensive strategy for selling the deal and enlisting the media to do the government's dirty work was drawn up even before the nationalist and Unionist parties had agreed to it. It is not often I find myself agreeing with Ian Paisley, but I sympathise with his claim that this document 'makes Machiavelli look like a rank amateur'.
The document has had the desired impact. Before and since the peace deal the media in Northern Ireland has unquestioningly endorsed the government's line with headlines like 'Don't give up' and 'History is made'. Indeed, something else that went largely unreported was Robert McCartney MP's survey of media coverage in the weeks after the peace deal was announced. McCartney, leader of the UK Unionist Party, found that the BBC gave 68 per cent of its coverage to Yes campaigners and 32 per cent to the No camp; Ulster Television gave 72 per cent and 28 per cent respectively; the Belfast Telegraph gave 78 per cent to Yes and 22 per cent to No and the Irish News gave 74 per cent and 26 per cent respectively. Much of the media seems to accept its role as mouthpiece for the government.
When I told a friend in Belfast about the government's media manipulation he responded 'so what? Look at the opinion polls; people like this deal'. It is true that every opinion poll has shown massive support for 'The Agreement'. But that is no surprise. With the old political blocs of both Unionism and nationalism exhausted and in some disarray, the government has been able to use the media to saturate a disoriented public with positive messages about both the deal itself and the level of support for it. In New Labour's brave new Northern Ireland even the opinion poll is being used for propaganda purposes.
'A key requirement in developing our communications strategy', writes Tom Kelly in the Northern Ireland Office document, 'will be a continuing flow of information about public attitudes and response. On some occasions this will be helpful to our cause and on others not so. It will be important therefore to ensure that not all the results of the opinion polling, etc, will be in the public domain' (my italics). The document goes on:
'It would be open to us to encourage some degree of public opinion polling by for example newspapers and current affairs programmes, where we believe the results are likely to be supportive (my italics). Some of this can be encouraged during meetings and briefings of senior media people.'
The document makes clear that this secret intervention in opinion polling is already taking place (it is dated 4 March, six weeks before the peace deal was agreed): 'We have now commissioned [PR company] McCann Erickson to have both quantative and qualitative research carried out without it being seen to be Government Inspired. Further and more in-depth work through focus groups has been instigated by [the] Political Affairs Division and a detailed paper will follow later this week.'
As the document admits, the aim of all this underhandedness is to make the backroom deals look like they are the property of 'the People'. 'A central part of the government's approach is that we are not imposing a deal, but giving the people a choice. The central message will be "It's your choice".'
The stage-management of the peace process did not end when the deal was agreed by the parties at Stormont over the Easter weekend. In the weeks after the 'long Good Friday', the government enlisted the help of the main political parties to purge Northern Ireland of any dissent.
Sinn Fein's ard fheis (annual conference), held the weekend after the peace deal was agreed, was described by one journalist as being 'as choreographed as Riverdance, and the audience is as appreciative' (Irish Times, 20 April). Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness enjoyed standing ovations and easy questions as they presented the peace deal to their membership as 'the best opportunity for equality and democracy'. Seasoned republican-watchers might have noted the absence of some of the diehards who like to raise awkward questions, like whether their leaders might be 'selling out' their cause. That's because just one week earlier they had been expelled from the party.
In the week from the 6-12 April, as the peace deal was being negotiated and agreed, Sinn Fein purged its party of dissidents. Francie Mackey, a Sinn Fein councillor in Omagh, county Tyrone, was expelled, along with nine members in Balbriggan in Dublin. Both the Omagh and Balbriggan branches of the party had prepared motions for the ard fheis criticising the leadership and the peace deal. 'We disagreed with the leadership, and now they are trying to silence us', says Francie Mackey. 'They are treating their delegates like sheep rather than people capable of making rational decisions.' Mackey was forcibly removed from the ard fheis and the media was prevented from speaking to him.
In keeping with New Labour's strategy of imposing the peace deal by any means necessary, Sinn Fein has sought to isolate and expel anybody critical of 'The Agreement'. This led one staunch republican, Joe Dillon, also expelled, to plead with the Sinn Fein leadership to 'be at least as honest' as the Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble. 'I disagree with David Trimble politically', said Dillon, 'but I respect him for stating his mind on the Stormont agreement'.
For its part, Trimble's UUP has openly declared that it will 'weed out' and 'silence' all those within its ranks who oppose the peace deal. It will also prevent dissidents from standing for the assembly. One leading Trimble loyalist has said that there will have to be a 'culling' to ensure that only those who agree to back the deal are given positions of responsibility.
By outlawing dissent and debate, Sinn Fein and the UUP have helped to clear the way for the imposition of 'The Agreement'. In effect this purging heralds a new form of divide and rule, between those who are willing to accept New Labour's agenda and those who want to hold on to their political principles; between the Yes men on the moral high ground and the No camp at the lunatic fringe. New Labour's aim is to create a broad centre ground under its supervision, made up of Sinn Fein, the bulk of the UUP, the SDLP and the smaller parties, with those who oppose the deal forced out into the cold. Whatever you may think about the No camp, the attempts to silence them and turn them into pariahs is an insult to democracy.
At the end of April it looked like the government, with the help of the media and the parties, had ensured that the implementation of 'The Agreement' would not be seriously disrupted by political conflict or debate. Then the Parades Commission came along with its report into the controversy over this year's Orange parade in Drumcree, due to be published so that interested parties could debate it. Not a chance. When Blair heard about the report he wrote to the Commission's chairman to suggest (ie, insist) that it be withheld until at least after the referendum. The government has been determined to stamp on anything that might cause political waves and endanger the smooth passage of its deal, even if that means direct censorship from the prime minister himself.
By the time you read this article 'The Agreement' will have been passed and New Labour and its friends in the media and the parties will be patting themselves on the back, hailing a new era of peace and democracy. But the reality is that this deal was agreed behind people's backs, promoted by manipulating the media and polls, and imposed by purging dissent and outlawing political debate. Welcome to New Labour's New Ireland.
Spinning a line: politicians like David Trimble and journalists give the 'right message'
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Reproduced from LM issue 111, June 1998