FOIs, spin and the media

It might be useful to make a stab at a chronology of events. It would certainly help to understand the news cycles at work.

Sunday July 26, 2009. Ken Foxe in the Tribune publishes details of expenses he had obtained via Freedom of Information requests.

Sunday August 2, 2009. Ken Foxe publishes more details of trips.

Sunday August 9, 2009. Ken publishes more details.

His stories were important, well researched, and well written. And it is important to say, he did the legwork, and deserves the credit. But other news organisations did not pick up the stories in any significant way. To me, it seems to be a symptom of Sunday newspapers and weekend news cycles generally. The government knows how these cycles work and cynically uses them.

In mid-August I sent an FOI request to the department, seeking all the information they had released to Ken. I wanted them in digital format so that I could publish them online, but if necessary I would scan hard copies. The department replied that since so many had requested the documents that they would photocopy a set for me and send them outside of the terms of the FOI acts, for free.

I replied that I would be willing to accept the documents outside the FOI Act, but under two conditions: a) I had a timeframe by which I would receive the documents, and b) The Department would guarantee in writing that the documents they were sending me outside of the terms of the Act, were the same set of documents I would have received if I had requested them under the Act. I got that guarantee.

Sunday, August 16, 2000: Ken Foxe publishes more details of expenses.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009: I received the documents in the post, picked one folder, and started scanning. I uploaded the documents to a third party document sharing website (Scribd).

This outsources server issues, and allows for downloads and embedding of documents in other websites. It also means my site is not the sole place the documents are available. After posting the documents online, I start a thread on, letting everyone know they are available to the crowd.

Within an hour speculation surrounded the identity of the limousine company, and the seemingly large amounts of money spent on hiring cars. That led to members of scouring the internet for information, and some others recounting personal knowledge of the director of the company and his family connections. Comments on the blog post also speculate on these issues.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009: I uploaded more documents, and again place them on a thread. This led to further speculation about Cartel, and the money spent on hiring their services. Users started a new thread, devoted to the FF connection to the limousine company, leading to a 25 page thread. More details are discovered and shared.

In response to the thread, I wrote a blog post adding some more details, and laying out names and addresses. I received a call from Harry McGee of the Irish Times asking about my uploading of FOIs to my blog.

On the same day, the Irish Independent leads with a story by Michael Brennan, that there will be a clampdown on ministerial spending abroad, and on perks.

Thursday, August 20, 2009: I uploaded another set of documents. The Irish Times has a story on Mary O’Rourke’s opinion on John O’Donoghue’s expenses, which is now firmly back on the news agenda. In the same story I am quoted, and the name of my blog is mentioned. Over those first three days there were about 7,500 unique visitors to the blog, with over 10,000 pages viewed.

Friday, August 21, 2009: I uploaded another set of documents. The Irish Daily Mail led with a story relating to the speculation surrounding the limousine company, its connections to Fianna Fail, and the sums involved – highlighted by users and myself on August 18 and 19.

Saturday, August 22: 2009: The Irish Times follows the Daily Mail lead, reporting on the link between Mr Gallagher and Fianna Fail, and on the amounts involved. For the second time in a week, the Irish Independent led with a story on ministerial expenses. Charlie Weston writes:

“TDs and senators face having their generous expenses taxed under a radical shake-up. The report of the Commission on Taxation recommends that members of the Oireachtas should have their expenses taxed in the same way as ordinary workers. Many TDs submit claims of up to €90,000 a year in largely untaxed expenses, according to recent revelations.”

Sunday, August 23, 2009: The Sunday Times and the Sunday Tribune cover the limousine angles, with the Sunday Times directly mentioning me, and the owner of the limousine company, Terry Gallagher, directly referring to my blog. The Sunday Tribune story relates to some comments on around the cost of a very short jaunt between Heathrow terminals (€472).

The big thesis at work here is this: Crowdsourcing can work. When there are large volumes of documents to be read and parsed, it makes little sense for 1 or 2 people to work on it, when hundreds or thousands can help out. Hundreds of people searching on Google, asking friends about people, already having knowledge of particular people – digging into the data, sharing it, commenting on it, collaborating online, will lead to a more thorough examination than one journalist can perform. Yes we do need filters, but it should go hand in hand with the publication of all FOIs for further distillation, perhaps subsequent to publication of stories.

What interests me more though are the stories relating to clampdowns on expenses that led Irish Independent coverage on two days in one week. During 4-5 days of news surrounding John O’Donoghue, generated largely by posting the original documents online, two separate stories were written that could be described as government spin, including one based on a deliberate leak from the upcoming Taxation report.

I am not accussing the journalists in question of anything untoward, I am merely observing the effectiveness of government PR/propaganda. This effectiveness is demonstrated in radio interviews, such as Conor Lenihan on Radio 1 yesterday morning, where he could refer directly to these news stories as evidence that “those days are over” etc. The marrying of government spin with ministers on air attempting to justify the profilagacy of Mr O’Donoghue is fascinating to observe. The talking points alone are professionally done:

“We were richer back then”
“Those days are over, did you see that story about clampdowns on ministerial expenses?”
“The department decided on costs”
“It wasn’t the Minister’s fault”
“Ministers should stay in nice places when abroad, they are representing the country”

…among others. All of them nonsense, but all of them serving to distract from the core issues, which of course is their intention. Ministers are responsible for what they spend. They are grown adults in charge of departments, trying to blame everybody else.

There is one issue and one issue alone. Servants of the people are wasting taxpayers’ money. John O’Donoghue wasted vast amounts of money, not just on limos, on a whole range of things, from five-star hotels to government jet flights. That is the only point. Mr O’Donoghue should resign forthwith.

8 thoughts on “FOIs, spin and the media”

  1. Thanks for this Gavin and for the original legwork. But I think your final paragraph doesn't quite cover it. I don't know and wouldn't for a moment suggest that the relationship between O'Donoghue and the Limo company was directly untoward, but this doesn't seem to be about the lighting-cigars-with-$100-bills end of 'wasted vast amounts of money.' This lies somewhere between what seems to me to be pretty uncompetitive tendering and outright cronyism between state bodies and politicians' relatives. Using our money.

  2. Sorry I should perhaps have been clearer, I am not solely talking about limos. I am talking about government jets, 5 star hotels, or spending €28,000 in four days in New York. I am referring to the whole sorry lot, and that's only 2006 and 2007 I am referring to…

  3. Excellent blog Gavin, great to see it all laid out like that. You really are beginning to stir things.

  4. Can I add a minor kink to the thesis? This also shows that the game on-line isn't blogs versus discussion sites like but works best as blogs and (isn't that a tasty dish to put before the King?). Blog postings allow for more nuance, more detail, a considered and reflective style; a place like lets the more casual observer breeze by, see what is happening and if they have a contribution to make it, to make it. As a format it does also allow the many who respond “your Ma” to contribute too, that is both it's weakness and its strength. Kudos to you sir and to Ken Foxe.

  5. Typed a comment but that disqus thing seemed to break it. Won't retype all but just to say good investigative work and good use of new media and perhaps a silver lining from the whole depressing episode.

  6. The Departmental response spoke of the need for ministers tofly the flag abroad(my interpretation of their statement) Ihave no problem with this but flying the flag for 5 days at CHELTENHAM,4 days at ASCOT and 4 days at LONGCHAMP is so OTT as to border on the obscene even if the States finances are in the black—a Minister who engages in such activity is clearly unfit for high office and in my view O Donoghue should reslgn fortwith.

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