Newton Emerson has been looking at the apparent growth industry of goverment press officers
The Executive Information Service (EIS), which runs the press offices for Stormonts 11 devolved departments, employs 92 press officers at an annual cost of £3.2 million. The NIO, which retains responsibility only for policing and justice plus a few other reserved matters, employs 30 people including 11 press officers at the Northern Ireland Information Service (NIIS) at an annual cost of £2.2 million. The Assembly Commission, which manages Stormonts chamber and committees, also has its own media centre. This is only the top tier of the press officer industry.
Every agency under the NIO and each devolved department has its own press office, some of which are enormous. The PSNI press office, for example, employs 36 staff at an annual cost of £1.3 million. Every public body funded by the NIO and the departments, including quangos and councils, has a press office as well.
At a rough guess there could be 500 government press officers in Northern Ireland and perhaps twice that number in the public sector overall.
Whatever the exact number, it is steadily rising. The EIS, which employs 92 people now, employed 55 people four years ago.
He’s concerned about the numbers involved and the cost, and suggests there’s another issue
Press officers are recruited from the ranks of the norths media, with experience in journalism often specifically required. For people in a struggling industry, where jobs are hard to come by at the best of times, such an abundance of well-paid work is an irresistible lure. There are now more press officers in the EIS alone than the total number of reporters at all three of Belfasts daily newspapers. For those still in the media, the growing assumption that becoming a press officer is the next step on the career ladder risks introducing a culture of compliance.
The number of people being paid to put a gloss on what the administration, and its agencies, are or are not doing is of concern, particularly in comparison to the number who should be looking at it sceptically. But is “becoming a press officer is the next step on the career ladder” really a growing assumption?