“This has been custom and practice, I have just put it in writing.”

Apparently, 161 publicly-funded press officers are not sufficient to keep Northern Ireland’s troublesome press pack in check…  The Belfast Telegraph has gotten hold of a “confidential memo” [not yet online] from the NI Minister of Culture, Sinn Féin’s Carál Ní Chuilín, to the various arms-length bodies (ALBs) within the department’s remit setting out “a proposed media communications protocol”.  From the BBC report

DCAL said the objective was to promote best practice in communication and to ensure that the media and the public were fully informed about DCAL and the work of the arms length bodies (ALBs).

These include organisations such as the Arts Council, the Armagh Planetarium and Sport Northern Ireland.

Among the “protocols” outlined by the paper was the requirement that bodies consult the department of culture about any approach from the media.

It said the minister should be offered the opportunity to lead in any publicity event.

The Belfast Telegraph also claimed the memo warned that if there was a disagreement between the department and ALBs, DCAL would have the final say.

Earlier the BBC report included a comment from the Department stating that any problems could be worked out in a “communications forum” that was being set up.  Now, however, we only have the comments from the Minister.

Ms Ni Chuilin said the protocols had been in place for decades, “even through direct rule”.

“This has been custom and practice, I have just put it in writing,” she said.

The minister said 84% of her department’s budget went to arms length bodies.

“It’s just a question of autonomy and responsibility for public money,” she said.

Ms Ni Chuilin said she met regularly with the bodies and none had raised the issue.

That doesn’t exactly tally with the additional comments in the BBC report from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.

A spokesperson for the Arts Council, one of the arms length bodies, said: “The Arts Council confirms that it received from DCAL a proposed media communications protocol between DCAL and its arms length bodies.

“The protocol will be considered by the Arts Council at its next board meeting at the end of March.

“We can’t make any further comment until the council has had the opportunity to discuss the protocol.”

And from the Belfast Telegraph editorial

The document went to eight so-called arms-length bodies, although, obviously, Ms ni Chuilin doesn’t believe that they are beyond her reach. Her attempt to gag the bodies – one part of the document says her department must be called in if any issue is likely to result in negative publicity – is more akin to old Soviet-style control than the behaviour expected of a politician in a democratic society. There is no sense of irony in her statement that the new protocols will not encroach on any organisation’s independence. Is she serious?

Update  In today’s Belfast Telegraph Liam Clarke has some details from the “confidential memo”

One key item in the three-page protocol speaks of the organisations “working in partnership with DCAL” on media matters but adds “in circumstances where agreement cannot be reached the department will decide how an issue/event will be handled”.

DCAL must be called in if any issue is likely to result in “negative publicity” and if the media make a Freedom of Information (FoI) request which could be sensitive.

The minister must be offered the opportunity to lead in any publicity event. The document concludes: “DCAL’s contribution to the funding of ALBs and the organisations they support should be appropriately recognised through a variety of mediums.

“This includes press releases, speeches, publications, banners and advertisements. DCAL’s brand should be prominently displayed and given equal billing to the ALB brand.”

The memo from the minister also states: “The key consideration for all media handling is that the implementation of an early warning system is to ensure there are no surprises.”

It continues: “ALBs will receive a request via their sponsoring branch for forthcoming proposed PR events. This is to facilitate the development of a PR programme focused on the minister’s key areas of interest. The minister has a particular interest in community-based work in disadvantaged areas.” [added emphasis]

And, apparently, in an accompanying letter

Ms Ni Chuilin states: “The protocol, and the work my officials are undertaking on branding, will not encroach upon your organisation’s independence.”
“Is she serious?”