“that says a great deal about the level of journalism that exists in Northern Ireland”

While I’m probably not the best person *ahem* to point this out, the Belfast Telegraph report on the latest from Hain’s the Preparation for Government Committee reads more like a press release than a report – after all, the consensus around a single Department for Justice and Policing was evident in the minutes from the 9th August. Perhaps it’s not that surprising, given what was recorded in the most recent minutes released from the Committee, dated 16th AugustFrom those minutes it’s clear that the politicians have as low an opinion of the journalists as the journalists may well have of the politicians..

The Chairman (Mr Wells): There are some practical issues that I hope will short and sharp to deal with.

First, I am conscious that the Committee has been meeting for the past two months; members have given up their holidays, and some individuals, whom I will not name — there are certainly half a dozen — have been extremely faithful and have been here at practically every meeting. Despite that, there does not seem to be any perception of that in the media. I am talking not about our discussions or disagreements, but the fact that the meetings have taken place. The Subgroup on the Economic Challenges facing Northern Ireland has issued press releases to keep the media updated, and I am conscious that the Committee has not done that.

I have had a brief discussion with the Committee Clerks, and we have scribbled out a draft press release for your approval. You will be glad to hear that it is not too controversial. To be honest, I have been disappointed that there has been so little media coverage on the effort that members have made.

Mr McFarland: Chairman, one of my colleagues raised the issue with a senior journalist. He enquired why that was the case, given that Hansard is available on the web and that anyone who is interested in politics could find some of the issues that the Committee has discussed during the past two months very fascinating.

Mr Kennedy: Steady on.

Mr McFarland: The word was that they were not getting press releases and could not be bothered to read Hansard. I thought to myself, wow — that says a great deal about the level of journalism that exists in Northern Ireland.

Mr Weir: I do not know who that journalist was. However, I suggest that he was being slightly economical with the truth. I have been to several meetings of the economic subgroup. A press release that roughly outlines the evidence that was presented has been issued after almost every one of those meetings. That information is in digestible form and tends to be a page or so in length. However, those press releases have been completely ignored.

According to one newspaper, Committee meetings supposedly occur only when the trustees of the Assembly Members’ Pension Scheme (Northern Ireland) 2000 meet, despite the fact that either the Preparation for Government Committee or its subgroup meets every day.

Sometimes, the media will run the stories that it wants to, irrespective of the information that it has been given. It is essential that the Committee issues press releases in the interests of openness and trans­parency and keeps the public informed of the facts.

The Chairman (Mr Wells): Admittedly, the draft press release is somewhat bland. It states that the Preparation for Government Committee has continued to meet over the summer recess and will continue to make efforts to scope the issues that are to be resolved prior to devolution. It goes on to say that, in addition to the meetings of the economic challenges subgroup, which will report to the Committee on 25 August, the Committee has been meeting three days per week. Members have been discussing institutional issues, law and order issues, and equality and shared future issues. Today, the Committee discussed devolution of policing and justice, and policing issues generally.

There is not much to the press release: it is simply to show that we are working away and doing something.

Mr McFarland: Is it worth sending a copy of Hansard to each of the major media outlets? I wonder whether a political editor would be more inclined to have a quick glance through Hansard if there was a copy on his or her desk. It is more difficult to go on the Internet, scroll through it, print it all out etc. Do members see any merit in that? A copy costs about £8.

The Committee Clerk: It costs £5.

Mr McFarland: Perhaps the budget would not stretch to that.

The Chairman (Mr Wells): It is a big undertaking. We need to speak to the Assembly press office about that and also ask that at least a press release is sent to advise editors where to find the Hansard on the Assembly website. I spoke to the editor of one of our biggest newspapers yesterday who was totally unaware that it was available.

Mr McFarland: The Hansard reports would need to be sent to the ‘Belfast Telegraph’, the ‘News Letter, ‘The Irish News’ and ‘Daily Ireland’. They could also be sent to the BBC and UTV, and perhaps to the ‘Daily Mirror’ or whatever else is in circulation.

The Chairman (Mr Wells): Can we agree to send a copy of the most up-to-date Hansard to alert the media? Are members happy with the standard press release?

Mr McFarland: Alerting the media on how to find Hansard may help to some extent, but journalists are just idle.

Mr Kennedy: Normally, when a press release is issued to attract wider attention, it includes a point of contact for further comment. Have you given any thought to that or does modesty forbid you?

The Chairman (Mr Wells): Mr Molloy and I can handle any procedural queries on what the Committee is doing. Beyond that, questions must be referred to the lead spokesman from each party.

Mr Kennedy: Will you and Mr Molloy be in the same radio car this time?

The Chairman (Mr Wells): That is unlikely.

Mr Weir: I have a small point on the accuracy of press releases. When referring to a discussion on policing and justice issues and, strictly speaking, our remit is identifying obstacles to devolution on those issues, what would be the title of the press release?

The Chairman (Mr Wells): We could amend that accordingly.

Mr Weir: The real remit is looking at the impediments.

The Chairman (Mr Wells): I assume that we have consensus on issuing 10 copies of Hansard to the media and on releasing the press release. Are members content?

Members indicated assent.[emphasis added]

I will, however, repeat the points I made in my comments from the 18th August – points which, I believe, do play an important role in this..

The time-lag in appearance, and the somewhat haphazard nature, of the Hansard record of Hain’s the Preparation For Government Committee may have something to do with the apparent desire of some parties to spin announce what they want it to be seen to have happened as quickly as they can. But the record is eventually appearing, and it’s worth reading if you have time.

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