Sam McBride: Another self-inflicted Stormont Castle controversy

Stormont Castle, the office of the First and Deputy First Ministers.
Picture By: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker
Stormont Castle, the office of the First and Deputy First Ministers. Picture By: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker

The Executive’s handling of David Gordon’s appointment as its first press secretary is a classic example of why they desperately need a radical change to how they communicate with the public.

Stormont has long struggled to project a public image of confidence and proficiency, with its very existence being threatened on numerous occasions since devolution was restored in 2007.

In response to the inevitable media questions and criticisms on each occasion, the DUP and Sinn Fein have veered from accusing the media of institutional negativity to accepting that some of the problems are of the Executive’s own making.

But it takes a particular level of dysfunctionality and insular thinking to turn what on Tuesday had been overwhelmingly seen as a positive story for the Executive – the DUP and Sinn Fein agreeing that one of Northern Ireland’s top journalists should be their joint spokesman and persuading him to take up the post – into days of negative headlines.

When I was starting out as a young reporter, I worked with Mr Gordon at the Belfast Telegraph, travelled to America with him on a work trip and have seen him at numerous briefings and press conferences during the years when he was a senior behind the scenes figure at the Nolan Show.

If the press secretary job had been advertised, I cannot think of a single journalist or PR professional in Northern Ireland who could have complained about him being given the job ahead of them.

Taken together, his knowledge of the print and broadcast media, of Stormont’s key players, of global political trends, of the Freedom of Information Act and of the Executive’s own problems make him uniquely suited to the post – even if it is a shock to see such a sharp critic of Stormont now inside the tent.

Therefore – and given that Mr Gordon has reported on controversies where other public sector posts were not advertised publicly – it seems incomprehensible that Stormont should have gotten itself into such a muddle over what should have been a straightforward appointment.

Initially, when the job was announced on Tuesday, the Executive was impressively fast to confirm his salary and some other details when the News Letter asked questions.

But subsequent questions – some of them extraordinarily basic and submitted on Wednesday morning – were not answered until late on Thursday night.

Rather than releasing all the information and a copy of the legislative change on Tuesday, Stormont has turned what might have been a story which ran for a day or maybe two into a saga which has run all week, and is unlikely to be over.

Mr Gordon is not yet in post. But when he gets there, there is a lot for him to change – if he is allowed to change it.

Ben Lowry: Stormont’s top spin doctor should earn as much as its spads