Naomi Long has denied knowing about the efforts of an Alliance spin doctor to have a BBC Talkback programme “hijacked” by her party’s supporters acting incognito.
The Alliance leader was commenting after head of communications Scott Jamison was discovered to have issued directives urging supporters to call the programme – without revealing their political allegiances.
The Facebook messages were posted ahead of Mrs Long’s appearance on the programme as part of the Radio Ulster series of Assembly election interviews.
Using a closed members-only site on the social media platform, Mr Jamison encouraged grass roots supporters to field “tricky” questions for political rivals, but to call in with “softballs” while Mrs Long was on air.
As well as passing on the programme’s contact details, one message said: “We could do with some callers/tweeters/texters. It doesn’t have to be ‘why are you so amazing?’ questions, but by the same token, some ‘softballs’ wouldn’t go amiss.”
The message added: “Just remember not to identify yourself as Alliance or an Alliance supporter.”
Mrs Long told the News Letter that the message was a “tongue-in-cheek reference to our inability to fill audience places” for broadcasts during the last election, but “like any private conversation doesn’t read the same out of that context”.
Asked if she was aware of the Facebook message ahead of the radio interview, she said: “No, I wasn’t.”
A party spokesman described the ‘Alliance Activists’ group as an “informal, private forum” and added: “Encouraging, not instructing, party members and supporters, who are members of the public themselves, to call in to public phone-ins is standard practice in all political parties. The selection of questions is down to the host and listening to the show, it is clear few Alliance calls were taken.
“We would be surprised if every other party does not have a similar outlet, where conversations of an equally candid and tongue-in-cheek manner take place. We would, however, be surprised if all were as tame.”
Just remember not to identify yourself as Alliance or an Alliance supporter
A spokeswoman for the BBC said: “Our radio phone-in programmes regularly attract a high volume of callers who want to ask questions or share their views live on air.
“In line with our guidelines, our production teams do their best to assess each caller to ensure they contribute to a fair and balanced discussion which our presenters chair live.”
BBC editorial guidelines for the NI Assembly elections warn producers to “be alert to organised campaigns or lobbying by parties, pressure groups, candidates or people acting on their behalf, particularly on social media platforms,” and go on to say: “If organised lobbying is suspected during the election period, contributors may be asked to provide contact details for verification purposes.”
Alliance was asked if any internal investigation was ongoing as a result of the Facebook message being posted but the party did not respond to that question.
Mrs Long has also come under fire for calling two Lisburn and Castlereagh councillors “balloons”.
She made the Facebook comments in relation to councillors Geraldine Rice and Vasundhara Kamble who recently quit the party after making allegations of ageism and racism.
Speaking after her party’s election manifesto launch yesterday, Mrs Long admitted using the word “balloons”. “I think most people will be surprised all I said was balloons,” the BBC reported.
She accused the two former councillors, who have since become independents and are voicing support for the SDLP Lagan Valley candidate Pat Catney, as having set out to “damage” her party.
Mr Catney said Mrs Long should apologise, and added: “In an era of mutual respect and equality, such comments are not befitting of any public representative.”