Northern Ireland, where Government Press Officers outnumber journalists…

If the first base in setting up a democracy is to get a critical mass of politicians to buy into standing for election and then (trying to help) run the country, then Northern Ireland passes that with flying colours. If the next step (and there is no reason these things have to be linear) is a free press to interrogate said public officials, then maybe we have a bit further to go. In any case, there was a nice spot by Liam Clarke the other day:

It was Roy Lilley, who edited the Belfast Telegraph in the rough years between 1974 and 1993. The paper came out even after it was bombed in September 1976.

Roy got the next year’s World Associations of Newspapers’ Golden Pen award for his courage.

However, the point he picked up on was the number of Press officers and spin-doctors at Stormont, who may well outnumber the province’s working journalists.

Roy told me he started as the Tele’s Political Editor in 1961, 50 years before I got the job.

“There were three Press officers in the whole of Stormont then,” he told me and, of course, the old Stormont got by with 52 members, where we need 108 MLAs.

, ,

  • leftofcentre

    Hi Mick, any specific stats on how many Press officers there is in stormont, and how many local journalists we have?

  • The New York Times, October 1984:

    “A dozen men in good suits and women in silk dresses will circulate smoothly among the reporters, spouting confident opinions. They won’t be just press agents trying to impart a favorable spin to a routine release. They’ll be the Spin Doctors, senior advisers to the candidates.”

    It has been said that following the arrival of the Blair government in 1997 that the NIO replaced press officers in various agencies such as the Prison Service with its own people; ‘on message’ was the buzz phrase.

    I wonder how many principal press officers, senior press officers and press officers are manning the barricades at Stormont and passing seductive texts to ‘lazy’ journalists.

  • But it seems to me that journalists are not exactly helping the journalistic cause by doing the PR thing. A few minutes ago I watched Lindie McDowell and another lady whose name eludes me being interviwed abut the fashion triumph of the young woman about to marry William Windsor.
    I suspect that the BBCs news report (available on their website) is from a Press Release rather than actual journalism.
    “She wore a double-breasted belted coat with a frill at the hem, black opaque tights and high-heeled shoes”.

    It is of course International Womens Day…..heralding the achievements of Women in Society. The irony.

  • Mr Crumlin

    I doubt there are more press officers than journos – with the amount of local newspapers there must be hundreds of journos.

    Look how many the BBCNI has on its own! Devenport, Purdy, Gordon, Kearney, Taggart etc etc never mind Nolan/Talkback/Evening Extra etc etc and thats just radio.
    Then there are the Belfast papers, the NI version of London papers, the dublin papers, sunday papers, press association etc etc.

    I think there is an argument that there are far too many media outlets. And Mr Mallie probably warrants ten press officers on his own!!!

    Id say there are probably about 40 press officers (12 Dept by 3 plus a couple of senior people).

    Now regarding the quality of journalism – give the Assembly etc a far too easy time and take the party line far too easily.

  • Lionel Hutz

    Its not so much the number of Journalists as the number of journalists actually looking at politics. Take a scan at the bbc Ni news website and its splashed with the latest crime details like the Sunday World. How many of these journalists actually are focussed on politics and how many can actually take the time to scrutinize papers and reports etc to offer an analysis. Very very few

  • Mark McGregor

    Gotta agree, I think this is hyperbole about to become accepted truth for some

    There may be a lot of press officers but it’d need a bit of proof before pitching more of them than journalists as fact.

    Mick, I’d suggest revisiting this before it starts being quoted/linked when the title is highly dubious.

  • Surely the Belfast Metropolitan College …which does a Journalist course (not cheap!) has a record of how many of its former students are
    1 government press officers
    2 journalists
    3 other media
    4 nothing at all to do with journalism.

    If its a field in decline then maybe the course should be wound up…..if this has not already happened.

  • Mick Fealty

    For all the literalists in the house, the base number of journalists is not the relevant figure. Ten years ago the Telegraph had five or six dedicated pol journos.

    That it now has someone Liam Clarke’s stature should not oscure the loss of capacity.

    The Bbc undoubtedly has strength in depth, but that is the exception that proves the rule.

  • Local hack

    “Id say there are probably about 40 press officers (12 Dept by 3 plus a couple of senior people). ”

    As a hack I can say there is probably about 40 press officers per department as each organisation has to have a dedicated press officer, then one to cover them, another to provide cover and another to provide more cover.
    Then each has a PR department responsible for making them look good but having nothing to do with the press.
    Every government organisation has (probably) at least five press officers and their are a lot of organisations.
    The police have an army of them. Each coucnil has a department and some even produce magazines and then there are the numerous PR companies who provide out of house PR.
    At Stormont recently there were two government departments, and an external PR company probably paid thousadns to have someone with spikey hair there at the launch of a campaign – why? – but not one of them could help me other than providing a press release.

    And I can honestly say there is a very small minority who are worth taxpayers’ cash.

    Here’s a story :

    I rang a department about a story I was on, outlined the issue and all the concerns that had been raised – basically the angle of my story which was critical of this department.

    After a long conversation where the PRESS OFFICER took notes they then said: “And what do you want me to do?”


  • Mark McGregor


    Seriously, wtf!

    You headlined ‘Northern Ireland, where Government Press Officers outnumber journalists’

    There’s something you have to stand over there – that quite of few of us gently tried to tell you was total BS.

    You didn’t take the option – now you get called for a BULLSHIT HEADLINE and premise

  • Frame

    The BBC has 7,000 journalists. That worries me more.

  • Local hack

    Mark – prove he’s wrong !

  • alan56

    If you start to count the press/communications people in Health Trusts,Tourism,Police,Fire and Resuce,Invest NI,District Councils and other Quangos I think the numbers would be high. These are all ‘government’ related.

  • Mr Crumlin

    Another thing – 50 years ago the news moved at a snails pace. Its comparing apples and oranges imho.

    As far as I know the Executive has 24/7 media cover – I doubt stormont in 1960 would have rquired that!

  • Mick Fealty

    In NI the speed of the media often works to the advantage of the government. We don’t have any media organisations with the (human and financial) capacity of the Daily Telegraph.

    The slow ball is what catches them out more often. But that takes time money and patience. None of which are freely available to the local media.

  • Mr Fealty……dont give into the pressure by answering questions. Hire me as a press officer 🙂

  • Mark McGregor Even M Fealty got it wrong on the exact head count the blogg does successfully raise peoples awareness to a very weighty (and costly) investment into spindoctor specialists. By any stretch of the imagination there is an over investment if nothing else; is NI being governed by PR hype? And if one does consider the general point of this blogg then what when the political hype bubble pops just as the banking bubble eventually did?

  • Drumlins Rock

    Mick, I think the guys are right, some facts and figure should be provided by yourself or Liam Clarke when you make such a sweeping statement. Generally there is a perception that too much time and money is wasted on “spin” at Stormont, also that the local press is not staffed with enough serious journalist to do in-depth investigations. Probably both are true, however it would be good to see the evidence for either proposition before we can honestly discuss the issue.

    BTW Mick, I disgree with the idea of “a free press to interrogate said public officials” challenge, question and prod maybe, but the “interrogation” method is part of the problem, leading to on the hoof policy decisions and journalists attempting to make the news not report it.

  • Not quite the same thing but a good example of transparency

    COI staff structure

    As part of an ongoing drive to improve Government accountability and transparency COI is publishing details about the civil servants working in the Department. Below is a detailed organisational chart and underlying data sets showing exactly how many staff were working in each area of COI at June 2010. This data will be updated.

  • As and when somebody puts in an FOI request,and it will have to be very very carefully worded, the reply could be very revealing.

    My money is on Mr Fealty.

  • “There were three Press officers in the whole of Stormont then”

    The Consumer Council of Northern Ireland has three folks who deal with media queries. They even respond directly to the humble blogger – unlike those in a Government department which I won’t name.

    It’s possible that said department doesn’t trust its press officers with bloggers as the latter are perhaps less dependent than MSM journalists on a flow of governance information.

    Slugger’s great merit is that it provides an opportunity for folks to put ‘discommoding’ information into the public domain. If MSM journalists or their editors or their bosses choose to ignore such information then they may well facilitate, even encourage, misgovernment.

  • Indeed Nevin is right that Sluggers “great merit is that it provides an opportunity for folks to put ‘discommoding’ information into the public domain”…but perhaps its great weakness is that it chooses what goes into the public domain …..which is of course quite similar to the role of the spin doctor.

  • “what goes into the public domain”

    fjh, I’ve just updated the precarious position of HM coastguard coordination centres. There’s been cross-party support here for retention of the centre in Bangor but, as it’s not a devolved issue, the Minister for Transport Mike Penning could easily take the axe to it. So far, no Slugger bloggers have stepped up to the mark.

  • There might be other issues on which they have not stepped up to the mark. But surely thats part of its charm. 😉

  • fjh, there are occasions when it would be financially too risky to express an opinion – or to permit others to express an opinion, even when you have access to the facts. On a number of occasions I’ve published information that was in the possession of the MSM but I’ve limited myself to asking questions.

  • “fjh, there are occasions when it would be financially too risky to express an opinion – or to permit others to express an opinion”

    absolutely true……and by definition occasions on which that criteria would not apply.

  • Nevin,

    > So far, no Slugger bloggers have stepped up to the mark.

    Realistically, Slugger isn’t a comprehensive service. Posts aren’t commissioned to reflect the entire news agenda; like all bloggers, volunteers post about the issues that fascinate them at a point in time – often neglecting huge areas that would be worthy of posts.

    And there’s sometimes no point duplicating – or reposting what other excellent bloggers are already publicising. You’re doing a great job tackling a huge number of issues at the moment yourself!

  • Drumlins Rock

    Nevin, I would be happy to post something for you on the Coastguard Station, even if it is just a quick intro and a link to your own blog.

    BTW I can only speak for myself here, but I am entirely free to post what ever I want on here, with the obvious provision it dosn’t land either myself or Mick in court.

  • Crubeen

    “As and when somebody puts in an FOI request,and it will have to be very very carefully worded, the reply could be very revealing.”

    I saw the results of one of those in respect of an “independent review” and the promulgation of the results thereof. It was a review that entirely ignored the matter that occasionned its commissioning yet nonetheless produced recommendations for future avoidance of that matter; was conducted entirely by fellow tradespersons of those being investigated with no lay participants; showed that the independent report had gone to the relevant Departmment for editing and approval before publication; demonstrated that publication was delayed whilst the Department considered and produced its recommended edits to the text; revealed that, prior to publication, there had been at least one meeting between the review panel Chair and the Department for which the Minutes were missing; produced the press briefing and suggested answers to questions likely to be asked (including one on the recent retirement of the Regulator’s CEO being not at all linked to the Review) and finally congratulated all concerned that the public presentation had gone so well. Given that the report was given to interested parties ten minutes before the Powerpoint presentation this was hardly surprising.

    And there’s no chance that any of these delicious titbits will ever make it into the public consciousness because journalists work to tight deadlines, don’t do research, swallow the bumpf given them (it is ready made copy) and move on to the next story.

    Of course it could be that there are so many examples of the incompetence of the public servants and their contempt of and for those they are supposed to serve ( us … the public) that the media just could not handle it.

  • It depends how you count them.

    ‘Journalists’ covers production staff and various editors, for example, as a host of other things. So a good start would be to narrow that down to actual news reporters (ie, ones who actually report on politics, health, education etc).

    Now are we talking about regional press, or the locals too? If the latter, then it’s only fair to include all the minor press officers around the country. If we’re talking about Stormont PR, then the regional media would be a better comparison.

    Either way, I reckon Mick could well be right – outside the BBC, reporting jobs have been more than decimated over the past few years. It would certainly be an interesting exercise to carry out, if anyone could be bothered.

  • Apologies for not getting back re. Coastguard story, Alan and Drumlins Rock!! Probably best to drop me an email at the blog in case I miss something here.

    I’ve just posted a new blog relating to Mike Penning’s contribution – a fine exercise in evasion and spin; you’d almost think he was getting his ‘fresh ideas’ from the Coastguard. Unfortunately an English paper had sight of a draft proposal, a proposal which looked like the intended solution rather than ideas for consultation!! Spotted two fine photos on the NIO website – a captioner’s gift. Feel free to take anything that appeals. You can search the blog with ‘coastguard’ for some earlier accounts, including local party ‘togetherness’.