FINANCE Minister Sammy Wilson has accused Northern Ireland’s journalists of being relentlessly negative about the Stormont Executive.
Addressing the first day of the DUP conference on Friday, Mr Wilson described reporters as having gone to “the Victor Meldrew school of journalism” and urged the media to “celebrate success”.
Echoing criticisms of the media made by DUP leader Peter Robinson earlier this week, Mr Wilson listed a series of “negative” questions about events which he said were entirely positive.
But last night the Ulster Unionist Party’s chief whip at Stormont, Robin Swann, defended the role of the media, pointing out that newspapers were operating under increasingly tight budgets while the number of press officers at Stormont is soaring.
The North Antrim MLA said that if Stormont’s well-funded scores of press officers could not spin the Executive’s successes favourably then the DUP should be worried that they are “having to plead” for positive coverage from journalists.
Mr Wilson, who normally appears at the main Saturday session of the DUP conference, was moved to the Friday this year.
He told the party faithful: “If you listen to the media sometimes, you’d think that no thought goes into government in Northern Ireland, that the major parties just play-act or something up in Stormont...”
The Finance Minister said that he found the local Press “amusing”, adding: “We bring the G8 to Fermanagh... unprecedented for this part of the United Kingdom. What’s the only thing that a BBC interviewer can do when we’ve an interview about it – start picking at the possible negatives of it instead of celebrating that here is something good.
“We have a £200 million package which will create apprenticeships and job opportunities for thousands of people over the next two years and what’s the only reaction – where did the money come from, is it new money, why are you spending it so thinly? Every possible negative question you could get about it.
“We introduce a new system for people to communicate with government and all we can get is: Oh, people don’t want to go on the telephone, they want to see people. Everything negative.
“I sometimes wonder, where do some of our journalists learn their journalism? The Victor Meldrew school of journalism.
“I want to see a media and an Executive that celebrates success.”
In an interview with the News Letter this week, Mr Robinson said: “I think that the Executive has got a very poor press.
“There are commentators and others who almost use the word ‘Assembly’ along with ‘lack of delivery’, which is completely untrue.
“I think that we have a job to do and you’ll probably see it being done over the next few weeks and months where the Executive will be making much more of an issue of what it is delivering so that people are aware of the work that we are doing.”
However, in a speech to the UUP’s Limavady branch last night, UUP chief whip Mr Swann said that the Executive could not just blame the media for its problems.
Earlier this year it emerged that press offices in the Executive’s 12 departments employ 161 staff at an annual cost of £5 million.
Mr Swann said that “spin” could not mask the Executive’s failings.
“The Ulster Unionist Party will continue to praise the Executive when it performs, but when it does not we will point it out in the strongest terms,” he said.
In his speech yesterday the DUP Finance Minister delivered a series of trademark jokes at the expense of his Sinn Fein colleagues in the Executive.
After telling the party faithful that Martin McGuinness was looking forward to the Brits Awards in Londonderry next year, he said: “The other person, he and I have quarrelled all the time – it’s well known that we spark off each other – and that’s the Education Minister, Mr O’Dowd; the happy face of Sinn Fein.”
In a reference to Health Minister Edwin Poots’ decision to fire a shotgun out of his farmhouse window at a late-night intruder, he added: “The kind of boy that you’d love to send to Edwin Poots’ farmyard for a walk about 12 o’clock at night.”
After roars of laughter, he added: “The other two Sinn Fein ministers are two women, I can’t remember their names but their sister’s called Cinderella, I know that much... Danny Kennedy told me that one by the way.”
He said that “Conor Murphy lost his job in the Executive and of course we all know he wants to get a job on the Equality Commission” before adding seriously: “Isn’t it strange that the people who speak most about equality are the people who practice it least?
“No DUP minister has ever had a case against them for discrimination because as far as we’re concerned, we will get the people who can do the job.”
He also joked that UUP minister Danny Kennedy had with his Belfast bus lanes brought traffic to a standstill in a way which the combined forces of unionism had failed to do in 1985 when protesting against the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
“Every conceivable organisation on the unionist side, in protest against the Anglo Irish Agreement, sought to bring Belfast to a halt – and we failed.
“And one man, with a piece of roads legislation, and a bucket of paint hasn’t done it for one day: He’s done it for months. He’s now the pinup boy of the Lisburn traders because he’s sent all the shoppers down the road to them.”