Ulster row over media manipulation

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The Independent Online
THE Northern Ireland Office yesterday found itself mired in an embarrassing controversy centring on a leaked government document which, critics charged, planned underhand manipulation of the media.

The document was yesterday branded by the Rev Ian Paisley as "a deceitful and filthy plan which makes Machiavelli look like a rank amateur". His criticisms were echoed by the larger Ulster Unionist party, which spoke of "deception and lies."

The eight-page document was drawn up by Tom Kelly, a well-known former BBC journalist who recently became the office director of communications. Mo Mowlam, the Secretary of State, denied she was embarrassed by its emergence, but she railed against civil servants who are supplying Mr Paisley with a regular flow of leaks.

Much of the document is taken up with the unexceptional mechanics of making sure ministers and others remain "on message" during the referendum campaign which will follow the emergence of agreement among the parties in the talks process.

But critics seized on a section on opinion polling which they alleged exposed clandestine media manipulation.

This stated: "It will be important to ensure that not all of the results of opinion polling etc, will be in the public domain.

"It would be open to us to encourage some degree of public opinion polling by for example newspapers and current affairs programmes, where we believe the results are likely to be supportive ...

"We have now commissioned McCann Erickson to have both quantitative and qualitative research carried out, without it being seen to be government- inspired."

It added that a database of "key movers and shakers", including churchmen and business leaders, was being drawn up, explaining.

It said: "While any overt manipulation could only be counter-productive, a carefully coordinated timetable of statements from these people will be helpful."

Nigel Dodds of the Democratic Unionist party declared: "It's a deception campaign. They're going to use taxpayers' money, not tell people that it is taxpayer's money, and then suppress some of the information if it doesn't suit them."

Dr Mowlam responded: "I've never heard so much scaremongering and rubbish in my life."

She added: "I get frustrated by the leaks, but I think as we get closer to an accommodation I will probably see more because there will be people within the civil service, like within the DUP, that don't want an agreement or an accommodation found."

n The Loyalist Volunteer Force yesterday threatened civil servants and prison staff in Northern Ireland.

The terror group warned that direct action would be taken against members of the Northern Ireland Office and prison staff after claiming their prisoners in the Maze Prison were not being treated in the same way as others held at the jail.