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Revealed: how the culture minister Caral Ni Chuilin aims to exert an iron grip on what key bodies say

By Liam Clarke

A Sinn Fein Minister has been accused of issuing a “gagging order” against many of Northern Ireland’s most prominent cultural and sporting bodies.

The Belfast Telegraph has obtained a confidential memo sent from Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin to a number of organisations including the Arts Council and Sport Northern Ireland where she issues stark advice on how to deal with the media.

The eight ‘Arms Length Bodies’ (ALBs) have been issued with tough new “media protocols” in letters from the minister to their chief executives.

The memo states that the bodies will be required to consult the Department of Culture Arts and Leisure (DCAL) about any approach from the media and are warned that, in cases of dispute, the department’s word is final.

Armagh Observatory and Planetarium, Libraries Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Museums Council, Northern Ireland Screen (which promotes the movie industry) and the National Museums and Galleries Northern Ireland are all affected.

One key item in the three-page protocol speaks of the organisations “working in partnership with DCAL” on media matters but adds “in circumstances where agreement cannot be reached the department will decide how an issue/event will be handled”.

DCAL must be called in if any issue is likely to result in “negative publicity” and if the media make a Freedom of Information (FoI) request which could be sensitive.

The minister must be offered the opportunity to lead in any publicity event. The document concludes: “DCAL’s contribution to the funding of ALBs and the organisations they support should be appropriately recognised through a variety of mediums.

“This includes press releases, speeches, publications, banners and advertisements. DCAL’s brand should be prominently displayed and given equal billing to the ALB brand.”

The memo from the minister also states: “The key consideration for all media handling is that the implementation of an early warning system is to ensure there are no surprises.”

It continues: “ALBs will receive a request via their sponsoring branch for forthcoming proposed PR events. This is to facilitate the development of a PR programme focused on the minister’s key areas of interest. The minister has a particular interest in community-based work in disadvantaged areas.”

In an accompanying letter, Ms Ni Chuilin states: “The protocol, and the work my officials are undertaking on branding, will not encroach upon your organisation’s independence.”

But Alan Burnside, a public relations professional specialising in government affairs, described the protocol as a “gagging order”.

Mr Burnside, a former government press officer, said: “The controls the minister lays down compromise the democratic independence of these bodies and their ability to perform with transparency and efficiency.”

Bumper Graham, of Nipsa, the public sector union, added: “Some of these arts bodies have major funding issues and it would be of concern if the department were trying to prevent them from highlighting the adverse impact of cuts.”

Jim Allister, the TUV leader, has highlighted Executive spending on press officers and media policy.

He describes the protocols as “control freakery” which was “demeaning and diminishing of the ALBs, but indicative of the control freakery we see at Stormont.”

Mr Allister pointed to a recent speech by Peter Robinson, the First Minister, in which he called on the media to publish more good news and less negativity.

Robin Swann, a UUP member of the DCAL committee, added “Arms Length Bodies should have the ability to operate at “arms length, the clue is in the name”.

“They should retain the ability to comment on the impact of decisions taken by the relevant minister, such as spending cuts on libraries, museums etc.”

But a DCAL spokeswoman said the protocols were designed to “clarify roles” and “promote best practice in communication to ensure the media and the public are fully informed”.


Arms Length Bodies contacted by Caral Ni Chuilin

  • Armagh Observatory and Armagh Planetarium
  • Arts Council of Northern Ireland
  • Libraries Northern Ireland
  • Northern Ireland Museums Council
  • Northern Ireland Screen
  • National Museums and Galleries Northern Ireland
  • Sport Northern Ireland
  • 2013 World Police and Fire Games

Organisations and their bosses... an uneasy relationship

Sinn Fein and DUP ministers have long been frustrated by the fact that, as they see it, they are held responsible for Arms Length Bodies but don’t have enough control over them.

Ministers are frustrated at the media for not applauding the achievements of the executive loudly enough. The Press are accused of being too fond of “trumpeting bad news” and acting as “purveyors of doom and gloom” as Peter Robinson put it in a speech to business leaders last month.

Bodies like Northern Ireland Water and the Tourist Board are regarded by ministers as a law onto themselves. However, democratic politics is built on checks and balances, not a silo mentality of absolute control in your own patch.

Conor Murphy tried to break down the barriers between his own department and Northern Ireland Water last year, and we can’t say much more because of the resulting legal action.

Ms ni Chuilin has previously shrugged off criticism of the appointment of Mary McArdle, a convicted killer, as her special adviser. She said, in effect, that it was nobody’s business but her own.

Her latest effort to force sports, cultural and arts bodies into line goes further. Many of these need independence to command public confidence and do their jobs.

This is a particularly sensitive area as her predecessor Nelson McCausland found out when he tried to tell the Ulster Museum to display more of the marching banners and Ulster Scots artefacts he found interesting.

That leaked out but under Ms ni Chuilin’s protocol the leaks would end. Any comment, even a disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act, would have to secure the approval of the minister and her media managers.

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