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Does Stormont believe in one law for them and another for rest of us?

David Gordon's appointment as OFMDFM's chief spin doctor got off to a bad start. Can it get back on track, asks Ed Curran?

Published 26/09/2016

The manner of the appointment of Stormont's new chief spin doctor leaves a lot to be desired in the context of the strict fair employment practices in Northern Ireland
The manner of the appointment of Stormont's new chief spin doctor leaves a lot to be desired in the context of the strict fair employment practices in Northern Ireland

The manner of the appointment of Stormont's new chief spin doctor leaves a lot to be desired in the context of the strict fair employment practices in Northern Ireland.

By Royal Prerogative of Mercy, dozens of terrorist suspects were absolved from prosecution during the former Prime Minister Tony Blair's reign in Downing Street.

And now, by another Royal Prerogative, the First and deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland set aside all the rules and regulations on equality and fair employment, which companies and public bodies must abide by in the appointment of staff.

Instead, by the process of head-hunting - which is outlawed for companies and bodies employing more than 10 people here - Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness have chosen their new spokesman, David Gordon.

That is not to detract from Mr Gordon's personal ability to do the job. By all accounts, he has proven to be the backroom backbone of the BBC's flagship radio programme, the Stephen Nolan Show, and formerly he made his mark as political editor of the Belfast Telegraph.

He follows in a long line of poachers-turned-gamekeepers from the local media who have gone on to inhabit the corridors of power at Stormont, many of whom I encountered directly in my career as a journalist and editor at the Belfast Telegraph, dating back to the start of the Troubles in the late-1960s.

When the national and international Press descended on Northern Ireland, political leaders and the security forces found themselves totally ill-equipped to handle print and broadcast media.

The demands of 24-hour news-gathering presented a challenge to respond swiftly to events unfolding on the streets and crises developing at Stormont.

More and more journalists were hired as spokespersons in the belief that each had good contacts in the newspapers and broadcasting stations and could build a trustworthy relationship with all these media outlets.

That, of course, depended on how their role was interpreted by their masters at Stormont, or in the security forces. As we were to discover, some spokespersons seemed to be more intent on preventing information reaching the public, or - worse still - providing misleading, distorted information in keeping with the old saying: "The first casualty of war is truth."

I used to participate with local broadcasters, such as the late David Dunseith of UTV and Barry Cowan of the BBC, in Handling the Media seminars for the likes of local government leaders and senior staff.

The participants on such courses needed to be more open with the public they served, but were often so distrustful, or fearful, of the media that they stayed silent.

As a result, more and more journalists, like David Gordon, were lured to the world of public relations for Stormont departments, health and education authorities and local government.

No matter the cost-cutting and staff-saving plans of Government departments, the industry of spin-doctoring has grown and grown to a point where an small army of spokesmen and women now stand guard at every entrance to national and local government.

However, whatever controversy is attached to the appointment of David Gordon at Stormont has nothing on the notoriety associated with Downing Street spin doctors, such as Alastair Campbell, spokesman for Tony Blair, and, more lately, Andy Coulson, the ex-News of the World editor, caught up in the phone-hacking scandal while acting as media guru for David Cameron.

I recall Campbell calling me when I was editor of the Belfast Telegraph. At the time, the peace process was going through one of its regular crises and David Trimble was threatening, yet again, to resign.

Campbell said he needed that day's Telegraph editorial immediately and launched into an expletive-laden denunciation of Stormont officials, none of whom, he claimed, could be raised after lunch to fax him the comment.

I dutifully obliged his request to fax the editorial and, within minutes, I watched as the Prime Minister quoted from it at the Westminster despatch box, evidence - if any were needed - of how closely he and Campbell worked.

How the new appointment at Stormont will pan out, time will tell. From long experience dealing with spin doctors, I would conclude the arrangement will only work if David Gordon has total access, as Campbell did in Downing Street, to everything that is going on in the First and deputy First Minister's Office.

Given the obvious diversity of DUP and Sinn Fein, that is a tall order - no matter how good the relationship between Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness.

In my experience, the best public spokespersons, whether they act on behalf of companies, or councils, government departments, or health and education authorities, are those who sit at the top table and from whom sensitive information is not withheld.

Knowing only half the story means being able to impart only half the story and that is not a good way to handle an ever-inquisitive media. Public relations requires more information, not less, in the public domain.

David Gordon has built his reputation on the abrasive and confrontational Nolan Show, where politicians like Foster and McGuinness would not get away with saying nothing for an answer.

It remains to be seen how he will behave towards the public and the media on their behalf now that he is on the other side of the fence.

Openness and transparency are certainly needed at the heart of the Stormont administration. Time and again, that has been found not to be the case.

It remains a failing of the devolved Executive, not least with so many unanswered questions surrounding the Nama scandal, as highlighted recently in the BBC Spotlight revelations.

Regrettably, the appointment of the Executive's chief spokesman is off to a bad start. There appears no openness and transparency about how he was chosen, or rather head-hunted.

The process of Royal Prerogative is applied to cut through red tape, but in this case how can it be justified?

What price fair employment legislation which lies surely at the very heart of the new Northern Ireland with its promise of equality of citizenship for all?

Head-hunting is hardly an example to set to the community at large. Sadly, we are left to ponder as to whether politicians at the top believe in having one law for themselves and another for the people they serve.

Ed Curran is a former editor of the Belfast Telegraph

Belfast Telegraph

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