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New leader moves smoothly through gears to set her own media agenda

By Henry McDonald

Published 19/12/2015

She might be only 24 hours into the job, but the Democratic Unionist Party's new leader and First Minister-in-waiting Arlene Foster is already proving herself to be adept in the dark arts of media management.

Foster clearly pays attention to the golden rule set down by the late father of the US Congress and key Irish nationalist ally through the 1970s and '80s, Tip O'Neill. The American Democratic politician was famous for noting that in the end all politics is local, something which the newly elected Fermanagh-born DUP chief clearly grasps.

The fact that she chose Q Radio for Fermanagh and Tyrone for one of her first radio interviews - ahead in terms of the early morning schedule of BBC Northern Ireland's flagship show Good Morning Ulster - proves Foster realises the vital importance of keeping your home base happy first.

Of course, the first woman to head up the DUP was also conscious of the national importance of her coronation on Thursday night. Foster opted for BBC Radio 4's Today programme to introduce herself to the wider UK audience during which she said she wanted to reach out to the wider pro-union community beyond the DUP grassroots. And in this newspaper she focused on her personal and family traumas during the Troubles, especially the IRA murder bid against her father and eight years later almost losing her own life in a bomb designed to kill the bus driver taking her to school.

Over the years certain Ulster politicians have had their favourite outlets to amplify their policy positions, strategic shifts and new initiatives.

Ulster Television, for example, during the build-up to the St Andrews Agreement and then the reign of Ian Paisley, had a very unique insight into DUP thinking, particularly the thoughts of the Big Man himself.

In the pre-ceasefire era, BBC Northern Ireland programmes such as Inside Politics were often used by political leaders like John Hume to transmit their messages and explain their actions, such as the SDLP chief's decision to take the IRA and Sinn Fein leadership on trust during the fledging peace process years.

Foster's first outing as the leader of the largest party in Northern Ireland signals an interesting gear change in terms of the use of media outlets to set the agenda and lay down their vision. She opted for three very different news organisations to say hello to not only Northern Ireland but Britain over the last 24 hours, from Pete Snodden's Christmas party show to the august arena of Today where even world leaders and statesmen queue up to be interviewed.

If this is the start of a new leadership style compared to the hand-picked, chosen few political interviews of times past then the Foster era is going to be unpredictable and fascinating.

Perhaps, too, her first venture into newsrooms and recording studios marks the end of big binary broadcast domination when the local BBC and UTV were kings, where in these times much of the media is far more fragmented and paradoxically locally focused, yet often still of national importance.

Meanwhile, here is one for political commentators, Stormont watchers and media analysts to chew over.

Witness Foster's old party reacting on Friday to their former fellow Ulster Unionist's elevation to the DUP throne.

"The Ulster Unionist Party congratulates Arlene Foster on her election as leader of the DUP. Her elevation completes a very successful year for unionism in Fermanagh & South Tyrone which saw Tom Elliott reclaiming the Westminster seat previously lost to Sinn Fein."

Classic!

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