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Not all Alliance members are laughing it off like Naomi Long

By Claire O'Boyle

It started with a joke. And why not? Alliance is having such a good time this week, its tongue-in-cheek jolly japes spilled over yesterday from its secret Facebook group - where grassroots activists were hilariously rounded up to make 'fake calls' to the BBC - to the launch of the party's election manifesto in Belfast.

The first question from the room was a 'plant', joked one party member. They were rolling in the aisles.

But soon came my question to party leader Naomi Long - after of course, hearing all about the party's dedication to "open, honest and transparent politics".

We had gone to them on Monday, I reminded her, with information of a straightforward case of good old-fashioned dishonesty.

The party's top spin doctor had sent at least two missives to the party faithful encouraging them to "hijack" Radio Ulster's Talkback show for the second year in a row.

"Softballs" would be helpful for Mrs Long in her party leader's interview with William Crawley last week, and "tricky" questions would work a treat for political opponents.

The party's media guru advised Alliance activists they could give "fake names and locations" if they fancied it. But of course they should keep information about their ties to the party out of the picture.

The party's response? To laugh it off, to say the posts were tongue-in-cheek. And vitally, to claim all the other parties are at it, too.

And so to yesterday, and Mrs Long's answer to my simple question - could the party have taken our story more seriously? "If it had been serious, then it would have been," she said.

So she didn't consider it serious.And she kindly went on to explain to me that indeed the posts were tongue-in-cheek, that for people in the know, familiar with these things, parties struggled even to get people willing to go along to invited places on audience debates. "So the tongue-in-cheek in that was very clear," she added.

It wasn't totally clear to me, I must admit. I think, although I can't be sure, that she meant the joke was that even this forthright callout on Facebook might not work. But their Press man did boast online that the party had been "pretty successful last year with hijacking the show" - so I guess amidst all the hilarity was a small glimmer of hope.

Unfortunately, as I went to ask a second question, the microphone was taken from my hand and I was told it was "one question only".

So I'll put my next question out there now. Are you sure Mrs Long, that it was all light-hearted? Because on those secret social media pages were also concerns raised by some of your party colleagues. One said the practice was "deceitful and unethical" while another said he was "disappointed" the party thought it was acceptable - so not everyone was laughing. Not everyone got the "very clear" tongue-in-cheek tone. And no one involved in the posts seemed to explain it to them either.

But Alliance aren't the only ones who seem to find this story, and the planting of fake callers on a public broadcast programme, funny. Yesterday, William Crawley opened his show with Shirley Bassey's Goldfinger. The 'Belfast Bond' assured listeners he and the team had "survived" the hijack plot.

He said: "I know some of you will be concerned after reading the front page of the Belfast Telegraph this morning about our safety after a reported attempt to hijack us, but I just want you to know, it's fine, we survived the plot."

The BBC wouldn't directly address Alliance's claim it "hijacked" their show last year, and that they've been working to do it again. They wouldn't respond either to the party's claim it's "standard practice" in politics. So just what do they think?

The BBC is a public broadcaster; we pay a licence fee to allow them do their jobs. But if they can't fill their shows with genuine callers, then their shows don't work. And if they don't work, scrap them, and let Hugo Duncan play all day. Because the electorate - and the licence fee payers - deserve better. We have to listen to enough spiel from the politicians themselves without having to hear from their stooges-in-disguise too.

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