Varadkar under fire as Fianna Fáil’s Cassells claims ‘State is buying the news’

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is living in “some Russian creation” or “Trumpland” if he believes his strategic communications unit (SCU) can buy the news without any consequences whatsoever.

Fianna Fáil TD Shane Cassells made this claim yesterday as he and other Public Accounts Committee (PAC) members demanded Mr Varadkar and senior officials answer key questions over the controversy.

Speaking during the latest PAC meeting, which heard cross-party calls for the Taoiseach, SCU chief John Concannon, Department of the Taoiseach secretary general Martin Fraser and others to attend, Mr Cassells said the recent spin attempts have been an affront to democracy.

Hitting out directly at Mr Varadkar, the Fianna Fáil TD said if the Taoiseach believes the SCU can continue unchanged then he is akin to Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump in their attempts to “buy” the news.

“There is nothing more important than the independence of media to do their job.

"And the comment I’ve heard over the last two weeks is that the media is under extreme financial pressure, and was effectively coerced into allowing this [the SCU advertorials] to run because of the financial strain that they’re under.

"If the State buys the news there is nothing more fundamentally important that if we’ve entered that space, that sphere that the State can buy the news. This is not some kind of Russian creation that we’re living in. This is not Trumpland.

"This is a republic whereby the independence of media to present the news and for people to disseminate that is fundamental in a democracy.

“My point is if people can use public money to try and present spin as news, the State is buying the news,” he said.

Mr Cassells’ comment was strongly supported by a number of other PAC members, including Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy, who said it is vital the Government gives the PAC its “business case” for why the SCU campaign was warranted.

While Ms Murphy said Mr Fraser and Department of Finance secretary general Robert Watt are the appropriate officials to attend, unaligned Independent TD Catherine Connolly, Labour TD Alan Kelly and Sinn Féin TD David Cullinane were among those who said the Taoiseach should also be hauled in for a public grilling.

Fianna Fáil TD and PAC chairman, Sean Fleming, said while he is open to asking Mr Varadkar to attend a PAC meeting to discuss the SCU issue, the Taoiseach is already due to attend a finance committee meeting on March 29 on the same topic.

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