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Poacher-turned-gamekeeper David Gordon snared in a story definitely not of his making

By Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 19/09/2016

David Gordon
David Gordon

Some might say that David Gordon, Stormont's new Executive Press secretary, has been hoist by his own petard.

After years of training his journalistic spotlight on corruption and conflicts of interest in the Northern Ireland Assembly, he now finds himself embroiled in a row about cronyism only days after taking up his new position.

Jim Allister has even accused the First and Deputy First Ministers of "flagrantly breaching due process" by invoking Royal Prerogative to quietly change the law so that they could give the former editor of BBC's Nolan Show a coveted £75k post without either advertising it beforehand or going through the formality of interviewing other candidates.

There's no denying that it's all been a bit awkward for Gordon, albeit that none of this is his fault. He wrote the book on the shenanigans that bedevil local politics. Literally wrote the book. The Fall Of The House Of Paisley has been praised for "cutting deep into the murky world of Stormont".

If he was still at the BBC, the one time Belfast Telegraph correspondent would've been buzzing round this story like a wasp round treacle. A "no comment" can keep a mischief maker such as Stephen Nolan going for days like a Duracell bunny.

It would be grossly unfair, however, to say that Gordon is getting a taste of his own medicine. Just because he himself might have had something to say about this affair, if it didn't concern him, doesn't mean that he's done anything wrong.

In fact, throughout this row there's not been a single suggestion from anyone that he has, or even that he realised the rules were being tweaked in his favour or would have approved had he known. It's hugely embarrassing to be known as a man who called for higher standards in public office only for it to transpire that you yourself have been appointed under controversial circumstances; but it's worth no more than a red face.

This is a small hiccup rather than serious misconduct.

Being a Press officer isn't the same as any other job, after all. It's not as if such posts are advertised on boards in the job centre. The best candidates are identified, approached, and wooed. Competence matters more than equal opportunities.

Gordon is now a public servant, so the details of his appointment are a matter of legitimate public interest; but it's ridiculous of Opposition parties in Stormont to pretend to be outraged about it. Are they seriously trying to fool people into believing that their own spokespersons and special advisers and other assorted hangers-on go through some rigorous process of selection before they start hoovering up public money?

If anything, Gordon will stand out as one of the least partisan people in Stormont. Unlike those others, he's not there to do the bidding of one side rather than another. He's the Press secretary for the whole shebang, with the thankless task of explaining what Stormont is up to at any given moment (because, admit it, we've all been wondering that for years).

He's simply been caught in a thoroughly modern trap. Cynicism makes us overreact and suspect everyone in public life of being part of some golden circle that looks after its own. Some are - but plenty more aren't. They're just doing a job that they happen to be good at. It's important to be able to differentiate between real dodgy practices and a temporary mess.

Gordon got this job because he was uniquely qualified for the challenges it entails, and that's more than most Press officers and special advisers in many walks of life, not only in politics, can honestly say. He'd have waltzed through any interview process, especially as Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness were obviously desperate to get him on board.

So what if they'd set their hearts on him? Within certain constraints, those in high office have a right to appoint those that they most trust. Just be thankful that this appointment didn't turn into another one of their tedious standoffs.

Once he gets over this initial blip, it will quickly be recognised as a good thing that Gordon's there. For too long the folks on the hill have proved useless at putting across a positive message, and journalism is partly to blame for that. Problems are much more fun to report on than successes.

Who better than a fellow journalist to handle news from Stormont so that the Executive's voice is at least heard amid the hubbub of criticism from those who, from the comfort of a bar stool or a BBC studio, think they could do a better job?

The very fact that this appointment was handled so badly only proves why a competent bi-partisan Press secretary is necessary.

Far from undermining Gordon's position, it's shown why Stormont needs someone with integrity and professionalism to steady the ship.

It's been a nightmare start, because no Press officer wants to become the story, but it will be a nine-day wonder. And perhaps not even as long as that.

Belfast Telegraph

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