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Exposed: Alliance plot to hijack BBC NI Talkback show with fake callers

By Claire O'Boyle

The Alliance Party plotted to "hijack" a BBC radio phone-in show with fake callers, explosive posts from a secret social media group have revealed.

The party's top Press man sent a series of directives to an inner circle of members - including Naomi Long, David Ford, Paula Bradshaw, Stephen Farry and Chris Lyttle - encouraging grassroots supporters to field "tricky" on-air questions to political opponents and "softballs" to their leader. 

Scott Jamison added if people were "stuck" for ideas, "we can email you a few".

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Mr Jamison, head of communications for the party, sent the messages on a 'secret' Facebook group, and said Alliance was once again targeting BBC Radio Ulster's Talkback after it had done so successfully in last year's election while David Ford was leader. 

A post by Mr Jamison, dated February 2, said: "Talkback are once again doing a series of phone-in interviews with party leaders ahead of the election. We were pretty successful last year with hijacking the show with a series of callers and texters, so I'm looking to do the same again."

The shock admission, seen by 148 people on the site, went on to tell elected representatives and candidates not to bother, and to leave the calls up to everyone else. He also told the group, which has 195 members, that callers should "feel free to use a fake name and location if you're so inclined" and be sure there was "no saying you're an Alliance member etc".

Mr Jamison pointed out that Alliance leader Mrs Long would be on the show "in two weeks, so a few supportive callers and texters on that day wouldn't be the worst thing in the world". 

He went on to provide contact details for William Crawley's Talkback programme, as well as a schedule detailing when leaders from every party were due to appear.

Not all the group's members were in support of Mr Jamison's instructions, with one commenting: "Have to say I find that deceitful and unethical. Is that not what's wrong with our country at the moment?"

Alliance FB document.
Alliance FB document.

Another added: "I am disappointed that we as a party think it is okay to do this."

Party veteran Mr Ford engaged in this exchange, but did not appear to condemn the practice. 

Keeping on top of members, former journalist Mr Jamison sent a follow-up message on February 13 as a reminder that Mrs Long was due to be on the radio show the next day - stressing that a helpful call would be "much appreciated" by the leader. 

Alliance FB document.
Alliance FB document.

"We could do with some supportive callers/tweeters/texters," he wrote. "It doesn't have to be 'Why are you so amazing?' questions but by the same token, some softballs wouldn't go amiss. 

"It should only take a few minutes, so if you would take five out of your working day to give the programme a call, it would be much appreciated by her."

The post, seen by 136 people and 'liked' by 10, received replies including one from former party employee Ian James Parsley - the husband of Alliance Assembly candidate for South Belfast Paula Bradshaw - that said: "Probably best not spouse of candidate either. But just by the way Naomi, why are you so amazing?" 

The party leader was tagged in the original post and also in Mr Parsley's response.

In an embarrassing turn, the first of Mr Jamison's messages came just five days after he directed an extensive and tough-talking note at election candidates on January 28, warning them to take care on social media. 

He told them anything they did, especially online, had "ramifications".

He wrote: "Journalists will pick up anything you say, particularly when it's written permanently online, and attempt to make a story with it. I know because I've been that journalist and I've done that very thing."

The post went on: "It also goes for this group itself. I've been concerned about a number of comments made over the past number of days in relation to several stories. To the point I'm going to go through and delete those I see fit."

The 'Alliance Party Activists and Volunteers' Facebook group works at the top level of secrecy on the social media site. 

In a public group anyone can see the group, its members and their posts. In a closed group anyone can find the group and see who's in it. But in a so-called 'secret', invite-only group like this one, just members can find the group and see its members.

Today's revelations also raise questions for the BBC, whose Monday-Friday Talkback show receives calls from members of the public on politics and the biggest news stories of the day.

On February 2 Mr Jamison told members of the secret Alliance Facebook group: "You don't have to identify yourself with anything other than your name and location."

He added: "The show is on at 12, but you'd probably need to call in 10/15 minutes beforehand to speak to the producers before you go on air."

Yesterday BBC Northern Ireland said: "Our radio phone-in programmes regularly attract a high volume of callers who want to ask questions or share their views live on air. In line with our editorial and elections guidelines, our production teams do their best to assess and identify each caller to ensure they contribute to a fair and balanced discussion which our presenters chair live." 

The corporation's editorial Election Guidelines 2017 warn producers to "be alert to organised campaigns or lobbying by parties, pressure groups, candidates or people acting on their behalf". The advice goes on to say that if "organised lobbying is suspected during the election period, contributors may be asked to provide contact details for verification purposes".

Last night the TUV's Jim Allister said having the "fake calls" practice exposed would cause problems for Alliance.

"Alliance like to paint themselves as whiter than white," he said. "But here they are perfecting subterfuge in organising fake calls to media outlets. That is disreputable in itself, but it is an indication of the panic they are feeling in this election if they have to jam the phonelines with favourable callers as if they're worried about real people.

"The fact this is now being exposed will cause the party more damage than they (would) ever (have) gained from it.

"I have never heard of this being done on such magnitude, in such an orchestrated fashion. They like to be the party of openness and transparency, and here they are conniving to rig phone-ins."

What the party said in response...

In a statement, a spokesperson for Alliance said: “The Alliance Activists’ group is an informal, private forum run by activists and occasionally contributed to by elected representatives and others.

“Its style is often light-hearted and tongue-in-cheek, which is well understood by everyone involved.

“Any reference to phone-in shows were very obviously made in that tongue-in-cheek style.

“Encouraging, not instructing, party members and supporters, who are members of the public themselves, to call in to public phone-ins is standard practice in all political parties. The selection of questions is down to the host and listening to the show, it is clear few Alliance calls were taken.

“Our elected representatives are tagged in hundreds of posts a day and obviously don’t see them all. It is also clear when any serious questions were brought to their attention in the forum, including recent resignations, serious and respectful answers were given.

“We would be surprised if every other party does not have a similar outlet, where conversations of an equally candid and tongue-in-cheek manner take place. We would, however, be surprised if all were as tame.”

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